Orb grazes in the grass during an early workout at Pimlico. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun / May 15, 2013)

Horse racing fans talk about their sport not having a Triple Crown winner in nearly 35 years much the way baseball fans lament the fact that their favorite game has gone more than twice as long without a .400 hitter.

Undoubtedly, in the days leading up to the 138th Preakness at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday, there will plenty of discussion about Orb's chances to repeat what he did at the Kentucky Derby and, if victorious in Baltimore, what he might do next month in New York at the Belmont Stakes.

Yet those whose livelihoods revolve around the breeding and racing of thoroughbreds believe that as baseball has become a much different sport since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, so has horse racing when it comes to getting 3-year-olds with the bloodline and bravado to the starting gate for a chance at this elusive achievement.

They say their business has changed dramatically since Affirmed won three close races in a span of 35 days in the spring of 1978.

"Horses are running much less and they're lasting much less, at least up until now," Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said last week. "A lot of it is that they race so few times before the Derby that they haven't proven they don't belong. They don't seem to be able to last through the three races at the same level. Years ago, not only did they run four or five times [prior to the Derby], but they met each other a lot."

Bailey points to what many consider to be the sport's greatest modern rivalry, between Affirmed and Alydar. By the time they met in the final leg of the Triple Crown at Belmont Park, the two legendary horses had met eight times. In total, they would face each other 10 times, with Affirmed winning seven.

"You knew if you belonged or not, so you knew whether you should go in [to the Derby] or not," Bailey said.

Then and now

Longtime Maryland horse breeder Mike Pons, whose stallion Malibu Million sired Orb, agrees, recalling how Citation ran nine times as a 2-year-old in 1947 and continued that pace into his 3-year-old season in becoming the eighth horse to win the Triple Crown.

"You don't see a Citation running on a Monday and winning the Metropolitan and the same week he runs on Saturday and wins the Belmont," Pons said. "It's done differently now. The horses are probably not sound as they used to be."

Dr. Dean Richardson, the head of surgery at the George D. Widener Hospital for Large Animals at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, wrote in an e-mail this week that he believes "that the horses that race today are actually more sound than 30 years ago and that there is much less willingness on the part of many trainers to run unsound horses. I realize this is not what a lot of people believe, but my experience is that many of today's trainers are very concerned about the horse's well being and will not press a horse to train and race when it has a diagnosed problem."

Despite only four starts prior to the 2011 Kentucky Derby, trainer Graham Motion must have believed that Animal Kingdom belonged. After taking over the horse's training in early March, Motion watched as Animal Kingdom went off at 21-1 (after starting the day at 30-1) and used the fastest last half-mile at Churchill Downs since Secretariat to win by 2 ¾ lengths over Nehro.

Considering how cluttered the Derby field looks after emerging from the starting gate — resembling a NASCAR race on four-legged machines rather than four tires — Motion said a lot has to do with the size of the field, the post position of the horse and the condition of the track on race day.

"Back in the day you didn't have to run against 14-, 20-horse fields every time these races are run. Nowadays every time you run it's a full field," Motion said Monday. "When you have 20 horses in the Derby every time it runs, you undoubtedly will always have a horse that has a bad trip. There's always going to be someone with a sob story about the trip they had."

Motion has his own — from the Preakness. The Fair Hill-based trainer still attributes Animal Kingdom's loss as a 2-1 favorite to the ride, not the rider. Jockey John R. Velazquez, who replaced an injured Robby Albarado the day before the Kentucky Derby, got caught in some early traffic and couldn't quite catch Shackleford down the stretch. Animal Kingdom faded to sixth at the Belmont.

"A lot of it is about having a good trip," Motion said. "Animal Kingdom had a tough trip in the Preakness in a full field of [14] horses, and I think it hurt his chances, quite frankly."

Motion said the fact that only eight horses have been entered in Saturday's race "could be the exception to the rule. This could be what really helps [Orb's] chances as well."

Different approaches

Pons, whose family's Country Life Farm in Fallston was opened by his grandfather in 1933, said the dearth of current Triple Crown winners might go back to the way horses are now bred to be sold rather than be raced.

The business changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the large breeding operations that dominated the sport nearly disappeared, replaced in part by many foreign owners and breeders coming over to the U.S. and buying up a large percentage of the country's promising horses.