In the days leading up to Saturday's Preakness, Orb seemed to morph from Kentucky Derby winner into a mythical creature with wings. In the eyes of many, he would fly past the Preakness field with the greatest of ease, while dreams of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed danced in our heads.
“Got any upsets in the Preakness?” one writer was asked. “Yeah, Orb only wins by three,” came the reply.
And so it went all week – in the press box, on the backstretch, and elsewhere.
Shug McGaughey did little to quell the feeling that Orb was a special horse on the verge of history. The usually-reserved trainer used words like “breathtaking” and “spectacular” to describe his colt's final workout. McGaughey said he was on “cloud nine” heading into the race.
Fellow trainers fed the Orb fever.
“I think Orb is going to win the Preakness, and I think he'll win the Triple Crown. I've never said that about another horse,” said Dale Romans, one of many horsemen to offer such sentiments.
This flying Orb wasn't totally a figment of our imaginations. The winner of five straight, the Malibu Moon colt appeared to be improving with every race and every workout. Nothing suggested we had seen the bottom of him yet. It was the horse that inspired McGaughey's confidence, nothing else. It was the horse that had brought McGaughey back to the Preakness for the first time in 24 years.
But there were also reasons to doubt Orb as an odds-on favorite who sucked up 48% of the win pool. Almost all of the top finishers in the Derby came from the back of the pack, runs fueled by a wicked pace. Orb had never started at Pimlico, and coming out of the first post position, there was the distinct possibility he wouldn't get a clean outside trip as he had in previous races.
But most of us ignored those details, blinded by desire and hope. We wanted to see a Triple Crown winner. Orb was the latest, greatest hope.
As “Red” warned in The Shawshank Redemption: “Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.”
It really does smack of insanity, this thing we do over and over again since the last Triple Crown winner in 1978. How many times have we believed this is finally the one and hyped him as such? 2008, 2004, 2003, 2002… and so on.
From a betting perspective, it's inexcusable and a horrible trap, one I've managed to avoid in some situations. This time, I like many others, let emotion cloud my judgment, a cardinal sin in the business of wagering. At 5-1 in the Derby, Orb was a gift. Saturday, he was a lump of coal.
Still, from a non-wagering perspective, I can't find fault with “going all in” on Orb. We can't help ourselves. We are fans – a word derived from “fanatics.” Unlike being a bettor, being a fan has nothing to do with logic.
While hope breeds disappointment, it's also the fuel for joy and elation. We imagine what it will be like if the thing we want so badly finally happens, whether it be a Triple Crown or the Cubs taking the World Series, or in my case, the Buffalo Bills winning the Super Bowl. Sure, season after season of crushed hopes makes me swear up and down that I won't get sucked into thinking they might do it the following year. But inevitably I do, despite the past and all evidence to the contrary.
If we don't hope, and constantly replace it with skepticism and fear, what fun will it be when the moment we've yearned for finally arrives? As fans, we earn those moments by believing, not by always doubting. Even if the moment never comes, a true fan knows there just isn't a choice but to believe.
None of this is to suggest that Orb isn't or can't be a special horse. The truth is, we don't know what he is yet. Foaled in late February, he's just barely three years old. Animal Kingdom lost the 2011 Preakness and Belmont and went on to win this year's Dubai World Cup. Curlin was beaten in both the Derby and Belmont but later won the Breeders' Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup and four other Grade 1 races. Even the great ones lose. Secretariat was defeated in nearly a quarter of his 21 lifetime starts.
If Orb comes back in three weeks and wins the Belmont, he will head into the second half of the season as the one to beat as champion 3-year-old. Many great things could still lie ahead for him. But going into the Preakness, he was carrying too much on his back – unrealistic expectations that we illogically placed upon him. It's what fans do. In the end, the Preakness is a horse race like any other – where things like trips and pace and circumstances matter.
This game will break your heart if you let it. But as a fan, you have to let it. The disappointment stings, and it's easy to tell ourselves we won't believe so much the next time.
But we will. As Andy reminds Red at the end of Shawshank: “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things.”
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