By Gene Kershner


BALTIMORE — For 35 years, the Triple Crown trophy has sat dormant, while formidable challengers have pursued thoroughbred racing’s Holy Grail.

This afternoon, Orb will try to extend his quest for one of the most elusive achievements in sports in the 138th running of the Preakness Stakes (Ch. 2, 4:30 p.m.) at Pimlico Race Course.

Let’s look at some of the major questions surrounding his chances to add the priceless Woodlawn Vase to his current collection.

How big an obstacle was drawing the rail post for the second jewel in racing’s triple crown? When the Derby champion drew the rail on Wednesday afternoon, the first roadblock to winning the Triple Crown was placed directly in his path. Since 1961, only one horse (Tabasco Cat, 1994) has won from the rail, putting the even-money favorite up against it.

While it has proved difficult to win from the rail, during that time span the Derby champion has started from that post once, so the statistic can be deceiving. The last Derby champion in the past 52 years to break from the rail was Proud Clarion in 1967, finishing third.

With Goldencents and Titletown Five in the two posts outside of Orb, he should be able to take back and make his run during the stretch. With only eight other horses in the race, the rail position is not as big a factor as it is in the Derby; when you have 19 or 20 horses in the race the probability of being banged around is greater.

Trainer Shug McGaughey is on record stating he’d rather have an outside post for the son of Malibu Moon, but his horse traveled more distance than all but three horses in the Derby, so if he’s the real deal coping with the “1” post shouldn’t be a deciding factor.

Which newcomers that skipped the Derby can upset Orb? In nine of the last 11 runnings of the Preakness, a horse that did not compete in the Kentucky Derby has hit the board in the second jewel. One such entrant that presents the challenge is Govenor Charlie (12-1), a horse that had enough points to run in the Derby, but Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert decided to skip it due to a minor injury to point toward the Preakness. Baffert has won the Preakness five times since 1997, loves the outside post (No. 8) based on a tweet he sent out shortly after the draw, “Great post for the Gov.” Martin Garcia, the winning jockey three years ago aboard Lookin at Lucky in the 2010 Preakness for Baffert, has the mount.

Baffert held him out of the Derby due to a bruised foot, but is confident that he is bred for the distance and his works suggest he is sitting on a big race. He’s a son of Midnight Lute, a two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, who some would think would be an unlikely sire for a Classic winner. The truth is that his distance limitations were due more to throat issues, not ability. Midnight Lute’s father, Real Quiet, won the 1998 Preakness and was second in the Belmont by a nose. On the bottom, his dam, Silverbulletway, is the progeny of Storm Cat and Silverbulletday, who excelled in two-turn races including a win in the 1¼-mile Alabama Stakes at Saratoga, so there is stamina present in the bloodlines.

The other challenger who could upset the Triple Crown apple cart is Departing, the Illinois Derby winner. Departing (6-1), who was foaled at Claiborne Farm along with Orb, is partially owned by the farm, where both will likely stand after their racing careers. The War Front colt also comes out of a key race, the Louisiana Derby prior to his win at Hawthorne, where he finished third behind the Derby show horse Revolutionary and fifth-place finisher Mylute. The winner of four of his five career races, he has two Preakness winners that come out of his female side, Blue Man (1952) and Seattle Slew (1977). There are certainly questions within his pedigree relating to stamina, but he has enough on the bottom side with A.P. Indy and Forty Niner influences present to contend.

What colt returning from the Derby is the biggest threat? While most of the money will likely land on Rosie Napravnik and second choice Mylute (5-1), the horse that has the best chance to unseat Orb on the Triple Crown trail is Goldencents (8-1). By drawing post No. 2 he will certainly be part of the early speed and get to the rail, so chances for the shortest trip around Pimlico is certainly his for the taking. Jockey Kevin Krigger echoed those sentiments at the draw. “I love it,” said Krigger. “We were just looking at the past performances, and we should be able to get a good spot.”

Trainer Doug O’Neill, winning conditioner of last year’s Preakness champ with I’ll Have Another, will try to become the first trainer since Baffert in 2001-02 to win back-to-back editions of the Preakness. He says Goldencents is up to the challenge.

“Orb obviously looks like the horse to beat,” the 44-year-old O’Neill said. “He’s not like a one-race hit. All year long he’s been super impressive. Hall of Fame trainer, future Hall of Fame jockey, and he’s looked great here at Pimlico. But we’ve seen Goldencents do some brilliant things in the afternoon. If he does, I think he can beat him.”

Can Orb keep the dream alive? Orb absolutely has the ability to take down Preakness No. 138 based on pedigree, speed, heart and the red-hot jockey Joel Rosario in the irons. The fact that the rail has not produced a recent Derby winner is more a result of lesser horses being in that spot and shouldn’t be the reason to toss him. The shorter distance could be his ultimate downfall if the potential speed in the race gets away. I still see him being the best horse in the race and charging late to win or finishing a valiant second a la Animal Kingdom in 2011, should he be placed too far back early on.

To protect against an upset I will box Orb with Govenor Charlie, Goldencents and Departing in an exacta. If the track comes up muddy or sloppy I will substitute Mylute and Will Take Charge in the show and fourth slots, respectively.

Post Time Outlook: 1 - Orb; 2 – Govenor Charlie; 3 – Goldencents; 4 - Departing

Gene Kershner,a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets@EquiSpace.