For all of his laser focus on Saturday's Preakness, Claude "Shug" McGaughey couldn't help but dream ahead to the possibility of his colt, Orb, going for a Triple Crown at his home track of Belmont Park in New York.

"I wouldn't be telling you the truth if I said I didn't think down the line a bit," McGaughey said. "I thought that if we could get it done today, going back to Belmont, we'd be comfortable there and we'd probably really have a big chance."

For McGaughey and Orb, the story ended the way it has for every other Triple Crown aspirant since 1978 — in defeat.

The Derby champion started in the No. 1 post at Pimlico Race Course and couldn't fight his way out of traffic until it was too late for him to make a charge at eventual winner Oxbow.

Orb's starting position was the result of simple bad luck, one of many factors that have contributed to a 35-year drought in Triple Crown winners.

"It's a tough thing to do, and that's why it never gets done," said McGaughey, who has trained thoroughbreds for more than 30 years.

The day's winning trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, agreed. Lukas won his 14th Triple Crown race on Saturday, a record. But for all those triumphs, he has never won the Triple Crown itself.

"I really think that we need a Triple Crown winner," he said after the race. "But the way that the system is now, with the tough races leading in and the 20-horse fields in the Derby, it's going to be hard to get one."

Lukas expected Orb to make a charge at the end as he did to win the Derby. He even told colleagues before the race that if Orb got clear by the ½-mile pole, the Derby champion couldn't be beaten.

That was exactly the problem McGaughey said. Orb could never get clear. "I just think he got himself in a position where he wasn't real comfortable," he explained.

The crowd of 117,203 seemed to deflate as Oxbow sprinted past the wire and another year's Triple Crown hopes evaporated.

Thrown out at third

Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown, 12 thoroughbreds have gone to Belmont with a chance to join the elite club.

Some have come tantalizingly close. In 1997, Silver Charm lost his lead in the last 50 yards, and the next year, Real Quiet lost to Victory Gallop by a nose, only after officials reviewed film of the race.

Others have faltered well before the wire. In 2008, Big Brown went off as a 3-10 favorite at the Belmont but pulled up on the backstretch, possibly because of a dislodged shoe. Last year, I'll Have Another never made it to the starting line, scratching because of a tendon injury.

The why of the drought has become a point of annual debate in the sport.

Many argue that the Triple Crown was a challenge devised in a different age, when horses raced more regularly and were bred to run longer distances. Trainers whose horses lose in the Kentucky Derby often skip the Preakness and then enter the Belmont. That means potential Triple Crown winners invariably face a field of fresher horses in New York.

Simple bad luck plays in as well. Funny Cide couldn't have looked better going into the 2003 Belmont. But he hated muddy tracks, and a driving rain greeted him on race day. He finished third.

The Triple Crown is supposed to be elusive, say many longtime horsemen. This isn't the only time racing fans have wondered if they'd ever see another winner. When Secretariat blazed through all three races in 1973, he was the first since Citation in 1948. That Seattle Slew and Affirmed followed Secretariat within five years was a rare confluence of great talent and good fortune.

Orb looked the part

Analysts tried not to get ahead of themselves in forecasting Orb's Triple Crown chances. But there were reasons to believe he had a strong shot.

He was bred and developed by one of the nation's great racing families, represented by owners Ogden "Dinny" Phipps and Stuart Janney III, who lives in Butler. The colt's pedigree promised the kind of stamina needed to win three races in five weeks. And Belmont, the bane of so many modern sprinters, is home base for McGaughey and the entire Phipps-Janney racing operation.

A year ago, McGaughey had no expectation that Orb would become his best 3-year-old since Easy Goer in 1989. The bay colt struggled to break from the gates in his first two races and didn't win until the last run of his 2-year-old season.

But more than any horse McGaughey had trained in his long career, Orb kept improving. He paid off that promise with a brilliant charge through the mud to win the Derby. And then he trained sharply in the two weeks leading to the Preakness, where he went off as a 3-5 favorite.

Three hours before post time Saturday, Janney, wearing a gray suit and a tan cap with his horse's name in red block print, paced outside Pimlico's stakes barn. Orb munched hay behind him in stall 40.

The scene was so calm that you could forget the other side of the grandstand, where singer Pitbull riled up a sea of shirtless rowdies, and television cameras waited to record Orb's every step. Asked if he had let his mind drift beyond the Preakness, the ever-reserved Janney shook his head.

"Not really," said the third-generation horseman. "You do and you don't."

The scene was different after the race, with teary-eyed family members milling around the barn. Then McGaughey, disappointed as anyone minutes earlier, sauntered up. "Do we still get to party?" the 62-year-old trainer asked.

childs.walker@baltsun.com