The Flying Orb: Hope, Disappointment, and the Triple Crown

by | 05.21.2013 | 1:09pm

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.”

  • stuckinarizona

    well said. orb likely will come back strong. there are some good races for 3-year-olds yet.

  • David

    Not all Derby winners become iconic names in racing history. Winning the Derby is special but it’s what happened in the ensuing couple of years that embedded names of the best of the best. The presence of the Derby winner during the balance of the 3-year-old year is always met with a rush and the re-emergence of those new stars were the highlight of following handicap seasons. How many post-Derby races have respective winners won from say ’70 to ’90 compared to say ’91 to 2012? Or, put another way, how many Derby winners can you name in the past ten years? ORB is a nice horse handled by a guy who richly deserved a Derby win. That said we need more than just nice horses.

  • FourCats

    Nothing wrong with having hope for a star horse. However, when you suspend logic to do so, you open yourself up not only to emotional disappointment but to financial disappointment as well. Orb certainly could have won the Preakness, but there were many reasons to doubt that it would happen. Most of his rivals in the Derby were hampered by the track condition, the fast pace or both. The time of the Derby was ordinary despite the fast pace. And all of the horses competing are just 3 years old and eligible to make sudden, dramatic improvement. That includes Orb but also all of his opponents as well.
    People really should read the classic book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”.

  • tommie

    I hope Orb does not run in the Belmont. Too many horses who run in all 3 Triple Crown races quickly disappear from the racing scene. He should be rested so he may have a great career.

    • Richard C

      Rest him up for Saratoga….but there will be pressure for an Oxbow/Orb “rematch” in the NYC marathon. Lukas will be game – heck, his Titletown Five may even stagger around the oval to get a lousy view of the winner, while being 40-plus lengths in the rear – but this isn’t Ali-Frazier and not even a ridiculously-hyped rivalry will save the gate for the Belmont Stakes.

  • Bryan Langlois (ShelterDoc)

    The Legendary Jack Whittaker said it best after Arazis stunning defeat in the Kentucky Derby in 1992….for when talking about racing fans and the hope for a Triple Crown or a great rematch in the Breeders Cup Classic he said…”but there we go again….sentimental people…in the most unsentimental of sports”

  • Big Red

    Well stated article.
    Let’s wait and see what ORB does the rest of the year before we start taking down the Secretariat statue at Belmont.
    ….unless for some reason you would like to bet him at 3-5 again which I would gladly book!

  • AGameofSkill_com

    Took the words out of my mouth. Excellent article. The hype on Orb was off the charts, mainly brought on by the regal connections that everyone wanted to root for.

  • Kingturf

    Orb is a very nice horse and I thought he did have a chance to sweep the crown. I had the pleasure to see all three triple crown winners from the 70’s run live in person at old Hilltop. While most people think we will not have another triple crown winner, look at some of the horse in the past 20 years that either did not have a chance to run in the triple crown, faced better competition or got injured. Cigar did not take to the main track until mid 3 year old season. Point Given…well many believe a poor ride cost him the Derby, Tiznow trainer showed patience starting him on the track after the triple crown series and have 2 Breeder’s Cup classic to show for it. Vindication not only looked like his sire Seattle Slew but ran like it…injury and never had a chance. Barbaro, while I bet Bernadini in the Preakness this was a special horse and I still wondered if he did not get hurt how the race would’ve turned out. Of course last year I’ll have another injury will have many like me wondering;what if! I am okay with a healthy debate, but the reason for not having a triple crown winner is one simple reason…Luck! Are you going to say horses from the 50’s and 60’s was not good enough? History say otherwise and this is what makes the triple crown special.

  • Ohio Bred Girl

    It’s of course disappointing not to have a Triple Crown contender. But it would help tremendously if the national sports media paid attention more than once a year. Those who see racing covered only in May think, “Oh, well, that’s it for racing this year.” They don’t hear about horses like Wise Dan, the great handicap races later in the year, or the 3yo rematches in the Travers and Haskell. Thank goodness for social media and the Internet.

    • DawnP

      A. Men. Be careful what you wish for people, you might get it. Do any of you seriously think a TC winner would race past the Belmont? Not with the clarion call from every stud farm in the country! Unless of course a gelding wins the TC. You are right–there is life after the KY Derby, a lot of life.

  • Nice piece. Says it all perfectly.

  • No sense in even TALKING Triple Crown winner until the first horse crosses the finish line at the Preakness. IF the same horse won the Derby & the Preakness, THEN you can start talking Triple Crown winner. Otherwise, as demonstrated this year, it is just hype and a bunch of hot air.

  • 1955racingfan

    I posted somewhere that Orb had alot on his back, not just Joel Rosario, prior to the Preakness. And all the trifectas I bet had him in them…but the one thing about racing that will never change is that aspect of hope. No matter how much we complain or feel let down, hope always prevails, and there’s always the “next race.”

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