Fun Final Prep: Orb breezes for Gold Cup

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Jenn Patterson pondered a simple question as she and Orb walked a Fair Hill shedrow after the horse’s final Jockey Club Gold Cup workout Monday morning.

“Is it fun?”

After half a turn, she gave a predictable answer, “Yes. It’s taken me awhile to learn about him. But it’s like driving a sports car, you know you could go faster but you’re not supposed to. There’s that voice on your shoulder telling you not to.”

Orb’s regular exercise rider, Patterson had just steered the Kentucky Derby winner through an easy 5-furlong work in 1:01 1/5, with essentially no urging whatsoever. She let him go that fast, she didn’t ask him to. The Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable homebred looked eager, content, light on his feet and completed a 6-furlong gallop out on the Fair Hill dirt in 1:13 2/5.

Patterson loved it. So did the voice on her shoulder, trainer Shug McGaughey.

He was on the other side of the barn thinking about Orb’s preparations for the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Belmont Park Saturday. First run in 1919, the race has long been the first race where 3-year-olds meet older horses at racing’s highest level. Orb and Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice step in against two-time Gold Cup winner Flat Out, Woodward winner Alpha, Whitney winner Cross Traffic and others pointing for the $1 million test.

“Obviously, it’s a tall order,” said McGaughey, who won the race with 3-year-olds Easy Goer in 1989 and Miner’s Mark in 1993. “It’s no easy spot, but that’s why you play the game.”

McGaughey sent Orb to Fair Hill Training Center after the Triple Crown series in hopes of aiding with some recovery toward a summer/fall campaign. The son of Malibu Moon made good use of the turnout spaces. He stood in the hyperbaric chamber, soaked in the cold saltwater spa, walked in the water treadmill at the equine therapy center and ate more grass than a roto-tiller. He’s also trained steadily on Fair Hill’s dirt track and filled out from a skinny boy in June to a more muscular man in September.

The Orb team thinks the Fair Hill decision was wise, even to the point of Phipps/Janney buying a barn, and McGaughey thinks his horse is ready.

“He made such improvement through the Travers and I think right after the Travers he made improvement,” said the Hall of Famer. “I was thinking about it last night; right now I don’t know if there’s a lot of room for improvement physically. I’m pleased with the way he looks, his attitude, and I’m sure pleased with what I saw this morning.”

Third in his comeback race, Saratoga’s Travers in late August, after threatening with an inside move at the top of the stretch, the Kentucky-bred could leap back to the head of his class and into the Breeders’ Cup Classic picture with a win. Despite losing the Travers, McGaughey considers the race a step forward.

“I think it helped,” he said. “We’ve got a fresh horse, we got a good solid race and we didn’t have to do a lot with him afterward.”

Javier Castellano takes the mount after Joel Rosario (aboard in the Derby) and Jose Lezcano (aboard in the Travers) were injured this summer. Entries close Wednesday. Under New York State Gaming Commission rules, all Gold Cup starters must be on the grounds at Belmont by noon Wednesday. Earlier reports listed 4 p.m. as the deadline, with extensions at the discretion of the stewards. McGaughey thought Orb would ship Wednesday morning to make 4 o’clock, but will probably ship Tuesday afternoon.

“I don’t want to take a chance, get in a traffic jam and get there late,” the trainer said Monday. “I don’t want to go through all that. If it’s noon, we’ll feed him lunch tomorrow and get on the road.”

NOTES: McGaughey expects to run Imagining in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Saturday, where he could join Fair Hill-based neighbor Nutello from Graham Motion’s barn on the Super Saturday card . . . Other McGaughey charges training at Fair Hill Monday included Keeneland-bound Air Support.