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Orb

Orb on the outside (left), with “workmate” along the rail. -- photo by John Nation

Orb training at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby

It’s Monday morning, five days before the 2013 Kentucky Derby, and trainer Shug McGaughey has a four-furlong (half-mile) workout scheduled for Orb. The Florida Derby winner, a handsomely-bred colt named for the ancient Greek word for “heavenly sphere” (his sire is Malibu Moon), looms as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Orb has put in strong races and plenty of long, stamina-building gallops, and now McGaughey will be looking to sharpen Orb’s speed, to put him on edge for the race of his life.

At McGaughey’s Barn 43, Orb’s regular exercise rider, Jennifer Patterson, gets a leg up to float into the saddle aboard Orb. Patterson is McGaughey’s trusted “hands aboard.” She’s been with Orb all along. The plan calls for Orb to work “in company” with another horse from the barn. This one sports a saddlecloth identifying him as “Workmate.” That’s the usual way. For easy identification, Derby horses carry their name on the special yellow Derby saddlecloth, and the workmate is “Workmate.” What isn’t usual is that on this morning, Orb’s Derby jockey, Joel Rosario, will ride Workmate.

We scramble over to the grandstand to see the work, especially the final quarter mile of the half-mile test – down the homestretch beneath the Twin Spire. If Orb has it, we should see it.

Under the grandstand it still smells faintly of beer from Saturday’s opening-night gala — and years of being a racetrack. But up in the boxes, breezes blow along, bringing the scent of newly mown lawns from the neighborhoods around the track – and rain coming along soon. But not yet. Just a few people are dotted here and there.

Out on the track, the regular morning training break has halted all horse activity. Tractors fan out three wide, reconditioning the dirt surface — harrow teeth honing it to just the right cushion. The harrows comb the tan dirt with long furrows making a perfect pinstriped path for horses to follow. Except these kind of horses don’t follow. They fly!

Now the track is open again, and, through binoculars, you can see horses appearing off in the distance, milling about — until here comes Orb and Workmate around the turn, now coming to the top of the stretch. Both horses winging it. Their hooves touch down in a double staccato rhythm. Eight legs, bounding fores and afts, almost in sync. Orb now angles up on the outside of Workmate — still held tight by Patterson.

Then asked to Go!

Dropping his head, lowering his shoulders, cocking up his back end, and pushing off with power, Orb strides out long and low into a drive. Cameras click, watches click, and they are gone! Straight as two strings down the stretch to the finish line a quarter-mile away.

It’s all over in 47 4/5 seconds.

Just a glimmer this morning. That’s it. That’s all the speed we’ll see from Mr. Orb until 6:30 p.m. Saturday, when the gates spring open for the 139th Run for the Roses.

I pull out my phone and put through a call to my “racing associate” George Hobbs, in another city. I know George is planning to unload on Orb in the Derby.

“You got what wanted,” I tell George. “Orb just worked terrific!”

“Yeah, I heard.”

Word travels fast.