If the Kentucky Derby was a coming-out party for Orb, the fabulously talented winner of five consecutive races, it was also an unveiling for his rider, Joel Rosario, who in the space of just a few months has come to be recognized as the best jockey in North America.
Among racing insiders, there’s a growing sense that Orb is good enough to win the Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and then to take the Belmont Stakes. The list of Triple Crown winners is short – only 11 horses have done it, none since Affirmed in 1978 – and it will take a special colt to prevail over the Belmont’s daunting mile-and-one-half distance just three weeks after competing in the Preakness, and five short weeks after the Derby. Orb, by all accounts, can be that kind of horse.
The list of Triple Crown winners is short – only 11 horses have done it, none since Affirmed in 1978.
“Orb is not the kind of Derby winner who won the race by default, or because others misfired, or because he ran an uncharacteristically explosive race that you want to see him repeat before believing in him,” Steven Crist wrote this week in the Daily Racing Form. “Every one of his races this year has been better than the last, and each time, he did what he had to do under his own steam. He can stalk and pounce or settle in and make a big run as circumstances dictate.
“He leaves the impression that there’s more to him than we’ve seen, and the way he’s trained since the Derby suggests we’ll see yet another career-best performance Saturday. Shug McGaughey, his trainer, usually uses ‘nice’ as a superlative, but he’s called Orb’s recent works ‘breathtaking’ and ‘magnificent.’ Be very afraid.”
Trainer John Sadler, viewing the Triple Crown proceedings from afar, also is high on Orb, and not just because Rosario, Sadler’s go-to jockey in California the past several years, is riding.
“My opinion, it doesn’t happen often, but this horse, to me, has the best chance to get all three of them than anything I’ve seen in a long time,” Sadler said Thursday morning from his base at Hollywood Park. “The reason is, this horse took his trainer there, not the other way round. You see the mega-barns, the Bafferts and the Pletchers, where it’s all about the Derby. Shug hasn’t been there in what, 12 years, and now he has the horse.”
"It doesn’t happen often, but this horse, to me, has the best chance to get all three of them than anything I’ve seen in a long time. The reason is, this horse took his trainer there, not the other way round. You see the mega-barns, the Bafferts and the Pletchers, where it’s all about the Derby. Shug hasn’t been there in what, 12 years, and now he has the horse."
He also has the jockey. Rosario, a 28-year-old native of the Dominican Republic, was a staple in Southern California, winning riding titles at the three major meetings – Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Hollywood Park – before moving to the East Coast last summer. Owing to a case of east vs. west provincialism, his arrival was greeted with some skepticism by the press and public. But look at Rosario now: In short order this year, he smashed the record for wins by a jockey during the spring session at venerable Keeneland, rode Animal Kingdom to a powerful victory in the world’s richest race, the $10 million Dubai World Cup, and expertly steered Orb around 18 rivals and through the Churchill Downs slop to win the Derby going away.
How good is Rosario, exactly?
“I would say that right now, he looks like the best rider in the country, clearly,” Sadler said. “The question is, how many Eclipse Awards will he win in a row. I mean there’s no one on his level at the moment. You have to look at some of the other top riders, they’re on the downside of their career, while Joel is going up to his peak. So who’s better now, Kobe or LeBron? The answer would be LeBron. They don’t all come along at the same time, at the same age. At his age, where he’s at, what’s in front of him, on the jockey landscape he looks like a standout.”
Like many young Dominicans, Rosario had hoped to be a baseball player -- but there aren’t any 115-pounders in the big leagues. When it became apparent Rosario was going to be too small for the sandlot, a half-brother – one of Rosario’s 14 siblings – suggested he apply his athletic gifts to race-riding. Rosario enrolled in a jockey school in his homeland at age 12 and arrived in the United States at 20. The rest is history. Or history in the making.
Yet the pairing of Orb with Rosario was hardly preordained. Rosario met McGaughey for the first time last July, and while he was aboard for Orb’s first five starts, Rosario found himself on the outside looking in after he skipped Orb’s start in the Florida Derby for the opportunity to ride Animal Kingdom in Dubai. Only when John Velazquez opted to ride the unbeaten Verrazano in the Derby did Rosario find himself back on Orb. He won’t be getting off any time soon.
Can a sport rich in history finally summon a Triple Crown winner nearly four decades after the last?
In the run-up to the Derby, Orb was the talk of the backstretch, and Tom Amoss, the trainer of Derby and Preakness starter Mylute, came to realize that Orb might be special. His workouts at Churchill Downs were spectacular, and Amoss, who doubles as a TV racing analyst, said he was taken by Orb’s presence on the racetrack.
“His stride is long and beautiful,” Amoss said. “He reminds me so much of Barbaro.”
Heading into Baltimore, where the ill-fated Barbaro was heavily favored in 2006, those words are both ominous and exciting. Can a sport rich in history finally summon a Triple Crown winner nearly four decades after the last? The racing world is buzzing about Orb. When he jumps from the starting gate Saturday, he’ll be in the best of hands.