You know you have a special team when each member wants to win the big one for his teammates as much as for himself. Talk to trainer Shug McGaughey and owner/breeders Stuart Janney III and Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps for any length of time about Orb and the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and the deep ties each shares with the others come to the fore along with the desire to take home the big prize for the other guys.
McGaughey was hired by Phipps decades ago to train the horses of the last great family stable to survive from racing's golden years on through to today. Phipps and Janney are cousins, and when Janney's parents passed from the scene nearly 30 years ago, Phipps's father, Ogden Phipps, invited Janney to partner up with him on some equine interests.
Today, both the Phipps Stable and Janney have their own horses, but they also co-own broodmares and their resultant racehorses. Orb, out of the Unbridled mare Lady Liberty, represents seven generations of Phipps and Janney breeding.
"We love our fillies," Phipps said. "They are the basis of our operation."
The female foundation of the family stable goes back nearly 70 years, when Phipps' father bought a band of broodmares along with the Kleberg (King Ranch) and Whitney operations, and the three split them up.
Orb descends from Shenanigans, dam of the great Ruffian, who was raced by Janney's parents in the name of their Locust Hill Farm. A victory by Orb in the Derby would be the culmination of the work put in by generations of these families, both human and equine. That association also includes Claiborne Farm, where the families have kept their mares through the years, and whose Hancock family has long advised them on bloodstock and mating matters.
"The people and the systems they put in place, between my grandmother and my parents and Uncle Ogden and the Phipps family and Bull Hancock and now Seth Hancock advising us, it would mean a lot for what those people did along the way," Janney noted.
But neither Phipps nor Janney count the Kentucky Derby as something they seek to participate in at all costs. Dinny Phipps has run just one horse in the race, that being Awe Inspiring, who ran a good third in 1989. A year earlier Locust Hill Farm's Private Terms ran ninth, the sole starter in the Derby for that operation. Unlike many other operations, Phipps and Janney have no interest in pushing a horse to make the race.
"We have no interest in going just to be there and be the sixth choice," Janney said. "Clearly it's an important race. People outside the sport, their only interest in horse racing is the Derby. I think that's an unfortunate situation, but I understand it.
"One reason I'd like to win it is for Shug. He's done a lot for me and my family and this would be a big deal for him to win it. Part of all this is wanting it to happen for him."
Phipps and Janney were not at all convinced they'd be heading for Louisville with Orb, even after he won the Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) in February. Orb had been progressing well over the winter at Payson Park in Florida, but McGaughey wasn't convinced he would turn into the top-shelf performer he has become. But as the Malibu Moon colt continued to thrive in Florida, putting on weight and muscle even after his races, his connections began running out of excuses why they wouldn't be participating in the Triple Crown races.
The Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I), which Orb did not have to win because he'd already accumulated enough points for the Derby, was the final tipping point. The general reasoning was the horse just needed to run well and show some interest and then hit the van for Louisville.
But that wasn't the thinking among the connections. Janney and Phipps wanted to see if Orb could mentally handle a big racing day and a good field of horses, knowing he would be facing that on the first Saturday in May. Orb won the Florida Derby by nearly three lengths, came out of the race better than ever, and now, five weeks later, is the morning line favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
Orb has continued to thrive since arriving at Churchill Downs, throwing in a four-furlong work the Monday before the Derby in :47 4/5. As he has all season, Orb is signaling that all systems are go.
There are plenty of people who will be rooting for him because in a world where change is coming faster each day, tradition in this particular industry still accounts for plenty, and is worthy of widespread respect.