By Steve Ginsburg
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas offered an ominous assessment for those hoping Kentucky Derby champion Orb will have his Triple Crown aspirations trampled at the Preakness Stakes on Saturday.
"If he'll scratch, I'll feel better about the whole race," said Lukas, who will saddle three colts in the nine-horse race though none better than 12-1 odds in the morning line.
"That's an exceptional horse, and in great hands. It's going to be difficult to beat him. His work this week was great."
Orb, an even-money favorite in the morning line ridden by Joel Rosario, has been unbeatable this year - literally - with four straight wins and is riding a five-race winning streak.
The son of Malibu Moon will break from the one hole but trainer Shug McGaughey saw no problems opening along the rail.
"The '1' is different here than it is at Churchill. The race starts at the three-sixteenths pole here and it's a straight shot. We'll be fine," said McGaughey, who has not competed in the Preakness since 1989, when Easy Goer lost to Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence by a nose.
"If I got to pick it out, that wouldn't have been what I picked, but I'm not worried about it."
Orb came from off the pace at Churchill Downs on May 4 to win by 2 1/2 lengths, and should he win Saturday's 138th running of the Preakness, he can become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 with a victory at the Belmont Stakes on June 9.
If the Kentucky-bred bay stumbles Saturday during his Triple Crown quest, it may be to Mylute, a gray colt who overcame a rough start to finish fifth at Louisville two weeks ago, or to well-rested Illinois Derby champion Departing.
Todd Quast, general manager of GoldMark Farm, co-owner of Mylute, said the mile-and-three-16ths Preakness sets up perfectly for his colt, who will be ridden by Rosie Napravnik.
"He is the consummate professional horse," said Quast. "His demeanor off the track is what you would want. He eats, sleeps and nothing bothers him. It's a perfect type of situation."
Napravnik would become the first female jockey to win the Preakness if she can guide Mylute to the winner's circle at venerable Pimlico Race Course.
Departing, with Brian Hernandez in the silks, has not raced since winning the Grade III Illinois Derby on April 20. The bay gelding has won four of five career starts, the only blemish being a third-place finish in the Louisiana Derby in March.
Trainer Al Stall gave his horse a pass in the Louisiana Derby because it was his first big race. He compared it to the National Football League where most players need a little seasoning, except for Washington's Robert Griffin III or Indianapolis's Andrew Luck.
"He did not have a lot of trouble in the Louisiana Derby," said Stall. "It's like going from the college game to the pros, except for RGIII or Andrew Luck. Everything is a little faster and the holes were moving a little faster than he was.
"In the Illinois Derby, he took Brian where he needed to go. I think the extra ground (a sixteenth of a mile farther than the 1 1/8-mile Illinois Derby) will help him.
"There is plenty of gas in the tank."
Among those also in the field are Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents, who finished 17th over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, and Florida Derby runner-up Itsmyluckyday, a 15th-place finisher in Louisville.
The 77-year-old Lukas, a five-time Preakness winner, will start Will Take Charge, Oxbow and Titletown Five.
Orb is clearly the horse to beat but McGaughey remains cautiously optimistic.
"If he goes over and runs his race, I'm quietly confident that he'll be tough to beat," he said. "It's just like I was at the Derby.
"I was quietly confident all week that he was going to run his race and if that was good enough, it would be good enough. I feel the same this time."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)