Race Day: All’s well at the Preakness

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Well here we are. It’s 8:52 Preakness morning.

At the barn, it’s hurry up and wait. Shug McGaughey sits awhile, sweeps, walks around. Jenn Patterson rakes the wood-chip path even though it doesn’t really need it. For the first time all week, signs of stress bounce around. Not worry, just a little stress – which is to be expected given the circumstances.

In Stall 40, Orb munches hay, stays in the shadows. By now he probably knows he’s running, but he’s got time to rest and wait.

Outside the fence, on Winner Avenue, Rogers Avenue and all the other avenues and roads around the historic track, the people walk, drive, roll past, talk, yell, banter. They travel on foot, on bicycle, in taxis, school buses, junkers, classics and everything in between. They’re coming to the Preakness, or parking cars for the Preakness, or selling tickets for the Preakness. You can buy water bottles, probably more, on the street.

Overhead, helicopters hover – collecting traffic reports, weather reports, beauty shots for the local news.

Everywhere, one question rules. Can Orb win? I try not to hesitate, but just say ‘Well, he’s in the right hands. If he’s good enough, yes, he will win.’ McGaughey has talked all week about the Kentucky Derby winner’s progression and development. On the track, the Malibu Moon colt looks fluid, even, steady, ready, nailing lead changes, walking placidly back and forth for Patterson and Anna Martinovsky aboard lead pony Well Well.

I didn’t see Orb work Monday at Belmont, didn’t see him at the Derby. Seeing him here, he’s a racehorse.

“I’m in good shape, Joe, I’m in good shape,” McGaughey said while walking back from the track Thursday morning. That’s a little like hearing “This will work,” from an old-time newspaper editor. High praise.

But the Hall of Fame trainer, whose Kentucky drawl was astutely compared to that of Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel (by a 12-year-old fan) this morning, is indeed in good shape with Orb.

The bay colt has won five in a row. He went through three educational starts as a maiden, two with gate trouble, then started rolling – maiden win at Aqueduct, allowance win at Gulfstream Park, the Fountain of Youth, the Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby. Next stop Preakness. Step by step, he trained better, ran better, produced better.

McGaughey and owners Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable went along for the ride.

“I didn’t know where we were, but then I was kind of amazed what I was seeing development wise,” McGaughey said. “After the Fountain of Youth, I absolutely couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Then we were standing there looking at him in the stall here (Tuesday) before he got out. His groom was getting him ready and I said ‘Can you believe what we’re looking at?’ ”

Maybe.