LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Oh, no. The road toward the rest of the Triple Crown looks strewn with unusual amounts of hope and excitement. How daunting.
Everybody with any horse sense knows the peril of carrying hope and excitement from Louisville to Baltimore and New York, but this time the hope and the excitement already have begun runneth-overing. Not only did Orb's commanding victory in the 139th Kentucky Derby brand him a potential Triple Crown winner, and not only does his lineage suggest affinity for the interminable mile-and-a-half of the Belmont Stakes, but everything around him suggests that Orb would be …
OK, Orb would be an uncommonly appealing …
OK, Orb would be an uncommonly appealing winner of the Trip- …
Stop. We should not utter such things, and we certainly should not type them. We know that among sports sentences, "No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978" has come to seem almost as old as "No British man has won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936." We must practice healthy pessimism to avoid another turn as dupes. We know so many lousy things can happen. We should scan the 12 horses who won the Derby and Preakness since 1978 and talk about safety pins (on which Spectacular Bid stepped in 1979), or kicked trainers (which a spooked Sunday Silence enacted in 1989), or tumbles right out of the gate (War Emblem, 2002), or hoofs suddenly cracked (Big Brown, 2008), or the occasional, overeager Belmont jockeys (whom we'll spare rehash here).
Instead, well, did you know that even in the desperate, fruitless hunt for the next Triple Crown winner, some candidates inspire more hope and excitement than others? Real Quiet in 1998 came the closest of anybody since Affirmed, losing the Belmont by a nose, but did anybody rate him alongside Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Whirlaway, War Admiral, Citation and their six other Triple Crown brethren? (Not really.) Would it have prompted some sighs in some places if, say, the late bloomer War Emblem had won? (Yes.) Might Big Brown have brought along big baggage? (Yes.)
But Orb. Orb oozes appeal. Orb chews up and spits out appeal for breakfast. Orb has the Phipps-Janney ownership families whose horsemanship stretches back into the 20th century and even -- yep -- the 19th, and Orb has the Dominican jockey with the hot hand and great smile in Joel Rosario, and most of all Orb has one of the most respected trainers ever to sling a bucket of feed before a ravenous behemoth in the Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey.
So surely McGaughey will drill some sense into us. After all, just last Wednesday walking from Barn 43 to the track, he told this story: "I was walking out of the paddock one time at Belmont Park, and a man said to me, 'Are you gonna win today?' I said, 'I hope so.' And he said, 'You can't base life on hope.'"
Yeah, McGaughey knows the hazard of hope with horses.
"To tell you the truth, I can't wait," he said Saturday.
When a man like McGaughey professes excitement, you tend to drift toward the danger of believing. When a 62-year-old trainer patient enough that his previous entries in the Kentucky Derby came in 2002 and 1989, feels the hope, that tends to ring seriously.
"I don't think we've bottomed out" on Orb's potential, he said Saturday. "I think he's still learning how to run a little bit. All winter we saw that same thing: He would make the lead like he would go off and kind of ease himself out" as he did when he dawdled a bit in the Derby stretch. McGaughey, continuing: "I've seen some things that make me think there is more there." And McGaughey, later on: "I think we've got our hands on a pretty special horse."
This places us in terrible jeopardy of hoping and exciting.
Jenn Patterson, McGaughey's deeply trusted assistant and exercise rider, noted Orb's continued improvement between races and said this of his appearance on Sunday morning: "For him to be up in front of his stall first thing, all bright-eyed after as hard has he ran, he has more. He has more."
And this places us in further terrible jeopardy of hoping and exciting.
Said McGaughey: "If we can keep everything going in the direction we're going, he's going to have a chance. You know, I think if we can get by the Preakness I think he's going to be one that can get the Belmont, and really cherish the Belmont. That's his home and that's my home, so he's going to be comfortable and I'm going to be comfortable and you know, I remember when I went through this before with Easy Goer [the 1989 Belmont winner], once I got back to New York I was a lot more comfortable with the situation, and he was a lot more comfortable with the situation."
And this places us in a raging and terrible jeopardy of hoping and exciting.
If Orb can get by the Preakness and head toward the gargantuan Belmont, remember that his sire, Malibu Moon, is the son of A.P. Indy, the 1992 Belmont and Breeders' Cup Classic champion, and his dam, Lady Liberty, also glows with distance as somebody who won at a mile and a half, a rare boast in the barn stalls.
Then again, we should not be running around using passages like, "If Orb can get by the Preakness ..."
We should not let hope and excitement overrun us.
This would be easier were we not so hopeful and excited.