2013 AHP Award: Winner Editorial Event Coverage Single Article circulation under 20,000 (print)
Orb delivers Derby win for old-school trio of McGaughey, Janney, Phipps
Shug McGaughey, bracing against the rain, stepped onto the muddy track at Churchill Downs, paused, then turned.
“You know it rained here once before when I had the favorite, maybe they owe me one,” McGaughey said, before making the long, thoughtful walk along the outside rail at Churchill Downs, hours before the 2013 Kentucky Derby.
Walking with his son, Chip, McGaughey buttoned a khaki windbreaker over his sport coat and began the trek from the chaos on the frontside to the solitude of the backside of the old racetrack. The Hall of Fame trainer had more confidence this time, knowing that Orb had trained well on a sloppy track and had flourished all winter and spring. But, that walk will make anybody think–about horses, about life.
For a trainer, the walk can be haunted by old demons. For McGaughey, none are bigger than the day in 1989 he came, locked and loaded, with Easy Goer, only to be felled in the rain. Sunday Silence turned into Saturday Silence. McGaughey walked through the mud, thinking about that squandered opportunity, one that left an indelible, burning mark on the Kentucky native. It took 24 years for McGaughey to return with one who breathed the same air as Easy Goer.
“Don’t ever let anybody think I don’t want to be competing in the Triple Crown,” McGaughey said about the prospect of winning his first Derby. “I think my name’s on one of them.”
Orb etched it in stone May 4, winning the historic Grade 1 for McGaughey, owners/breeders Stuart Janney III and the Phipps Stable, anyone who believes history matters in Thoroughbred racing.
From stall 16, the light-moving bay colt broke a step slower than Charming Kitten on his inside and Will Take Charge on his outside and instantly began to slide toward the rail, finding a comfortable spot in 16th, only four wide after a furlong. Farther back than what McGaughey and jockey Joel Rosario expected, Orb loped comfortably, outside, on his own as Palace Malice stoked the pace, burning through a quarter mile in 22.57 seconds. Santa Anita Derby-G1 winner Goldencents pressed, LeComte Stakes-G3 winner Oxbow kept his position on the inside, once-beaten Vyjack pulled his way to the pace from the outside, undefeated Verrazano danced in the ring of fire.
All the while, Orb galloped along in the clear, bouncing off the sloppy but firm surface–McGaughey compared it to the wet sand, hardened by waves, at the edge of the ocean. Aboard Orb for the sixth time but first since January, Rosario sat, content and confident, with only Mylute, Revolutionary and Java’s War behind him as the field began to stretch out after a torrid half mile in :45.33. Into the turn, the leaders began dropping like plastic ducks in a shooting gallery as Normandy Invasion swept to the lead and Orb ignited, going from 17th at the three-quarter mark to fifth after a mile.
Orb, Will Take Charge and Mylute closed from the outside, Golden Soul and Revolutionary threaded their way through on the rail, they were the only ones running. Orb brushed away Will Take Charge at the top of the stretch and aimed at Normandy Invasion. Nearing the eighth pole, Rosario pulled his whip through to his left hand and slapped Orb, maybe four times, and then hand-rode the 5-1 favorite to the wire to win by 2½ lengths, going 1¼ miles in 2:02.89. Golden Soul, at 34-1, finished second as second-choice Revolu-tionary and Calvin Borel went around just one horse while rallying to be third. Nor-mandy Invasion faded to fourth, a head in front of Mylute. Oxbow wound up sixth, the best of any horse in the fray early. The rest came home on their own time, like kids being called to dinner after a summer baseball game.
Rosario stood tall in his irons and pumped his right fist to the sky. Orb’s ears fluttered in the wind as the jockey patted him on the neck and fist-bumped Robby Albarado aboard Golden Soul. Orb won his fifth consecutive race and secured the first Derby victory for his owners, trainer and jockey.
As isolated as a trainer can get on Derby Day, McGaughey watched the $2 million race on television in the horsemen’s lounge behind the paddock. Never let them see your demons or your dreams. McGaughey stood, cross-armed, like he was waiting for a red light to change as Orb splashed under the wire. McGaughey’s wife Alison leaned over and put her arm around his shoulder and kissed his head, finally he exhaled, accepted congratulations. The bucket list had one less entry.
In the melee of the box seats, Janney tried to focus on two things.
“I wanted to see him come by the stands and see whether he was comfortable, striding out, relaxed and as best I could see he was. Then I wanted to see the fractions for the quarter and the half and when I saw that I kind of figured we were OK,” said the Marylander. “Any time in a big race I tend to think of all the things that could go wrong and think of all the reasons that it’s not going to happen. When you finally do see the horse get to a point in the stretch where you don’t think he can lose then you just feel this incredible sense of relief. Then I got elated after that.”
Assistant Jenn Patterson ran onto to the rain-soaked track and stood by herself, staring down the racetrack, tears streaming, hands shaking. Her Orb hat squeezed down to her eyebrows, she didn’t know to run, leap, stand or cry. She felt the satisfaction of the moment; what she had hoped, what she had envisioned, what she had dared to believe rained down in clarity. The Delaware native hugged a friend, who had critiqued her every move from Shawan Downs to Churchill Downs for two decades, “He did it. He did it. He did it.”
McGaughey, assistant Robbie Medina, Patterson, the Janneys and the Phippses eventually converged on the turf to celebrate –a horse, a legacy.
Maybe the lords of Derby history did owe them one.
While the rest of the world tries to buy a Derby winner, Janney and the Phipps family try to create one.
As Orb galloped out, Janney reflected.
“The history was there,” he said. “You had to think about it.”
In a modern world of breeding for profit, Janney and the Phippses breed for posterity, believing in their campaign, campaigning their beliefs. Orb traces back six generations, all the way to Bold Irish, a mare bred by Claiborne Farm (who raised Orb) and owned by Gladys Mills Phipps’ Wheatley Stable. Phipps gave Bold Irish to her daughter Barbara and her husband Stuart Janney Jr.
Winner of the Maryland Hunt Cup four times, Janney bred and raised homebreds from his Butler, Md., base. Bold Irish produced Shenanigans, who begat Ruffian, Buckfinder, Icecapade and Laughter. The only surviving daughter, Laughter produced Blue Ensign, Dover Ridge, Light Spirits, Private Terms and Steel Maiden. The latter raced for Janney’s Locust Hill Farm and Maryland-based trainer Charlie Hadry, finishing second in the 1986 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes-G2.
When Stuart Janney Jr. died in a car accident in 1988, his son sold half of Steel Maiden (and others) to his uncle Ogden Phipps as a way to stay in the game, preserve the legacy, get some advice, solidify the Janney arm of a racing dynasty. His father played an active role in the stable’s management, kept most of his mares at the Maryland farm and even rode regularly until late in his life.
“I was 40 years old and doing other things and not all of those things were completely compatible with running a racing stable,” Janney said. “Uncle Ogden’s offer to be involved in some horses was a very good development because I loved doing things with him and I respected how he managed his stable. It was very conducive to getting me to a point where I could figure out if I wanted to do this.”
He did indeed want to do it, and now manages a sizeable racing/breeding operation headed by 20 broodmares (six owned in partnership with the Phipps Stable). A daughter of Damascus and Laughter, Steel Maiden produced 1996 Black-Eyed Susan winner Mesabi Maiden. She in turn produced Lady Liberty who produced Orb.
Bold Irish to Shenanigans to Laughter to Steel Maiden to Mesabi Maiden to Lady Liberty to Orb. Now, that’s a homebred.
“Mesabi Maiden was terrific, she was a really attractive mare by Cox’s Ridge. I would have said that she could have been the best broodmare ever and (Claiborne’s) Seth Hancock thought the same thing,” Janney said. “We’d go down there and look at her and say ‘She’s got all that pedigree, she’s beautiful.’ And she didn’t really do anything particularly special. Lady Liberty was her best.”
The daughter of Unbridled won four races, but failed to earn black type in eight stakes attempts, finishing fourth in two Grade 3 races. Undaunted, Janney and the Phippses sent her to Claiborne for her broodmare career. She produced Cause of Freedom, a son of Alphabet Soup; he was limited. She produced Far and Away, a filly by Strong Hope; she ran once. Her third foal died as a yearling. She was barren the next year. Lady Liberty was on borrowed time, at least on the docket of Dinny Phipps, Janney’s cousin who succeeded his father as head of the Phipps Stable.
“Dinny was in a bit of a culling mood and he was after me for two or three years, ‘Why don’t we sell Lady Liberty?’ Seth and I were thinking that Unbridled mares were really a good thing, Seth believes that very strongly. If you don’t have one you need to get one so why would you be selling one that was in a good family?” Janney said. “I kind of put Malibu Moon down a couple of times at least the year before and Seth had said ‘Well, maybe. Not yet, not yet. Let’s see a little bit more.’ So when I put Malibu Moon down next to Lady Liberty, he said ‘I think that’s a good thing, we ought to try that.’ ”
Continuing the Maryland theme, Malibu Moon began his stallion career at the Pons’ Country Life Farm in Bel Air before becoming one of the sport’s premier stallions and relocating to Castleton Lyons in Kentucky for the 2004 season and then to his current location, Spendthrift Farm, prior to the 2008 season.
Orb was born in 2010.
He made his debut going 7 furlongs at Saratoga last summer. He broke from the gate like he fell off a diving board but closed ground to finish third behind Violence. He was 29-1 that day. In his next start, he dropped to 70 cents on the dollar, but acted poorly in the gate, hit his head on the way out, then was forced to try to lay up and was beaten 22 lengths. McGaughey went back to work, schooling him in the gate and waiting two months before his next start where he finished fourth in a 6½-furlong maiden at Aqueduct. Two weeks later, he won a mile maiden at Aqueduct and booked a ticket to Florida. McGaughey wasn’t sure if he was killing time or making time.
“To tell you the truth, I thought coming down to Florida, with his running style, he wouldn’t be effective. I said I’ll get a couple of races into him and get him back to Aqueduct going two turns and he’ll be the nuts,” McGaughey said in February. “I got him down here and sent him up to Payson, he wasn’t there very long, four or five days and I took Jenn up there and said, ‘We are going to work this son of a gun.’ ”
Orb was electric.
McGaughey knew he liked what he saw. Knew he really liked it. On that quiet January morning at sleepy Payson Park, the Hall of Fame trainer watched the leggy, bay colt breeze 3 furlongs in 37 seconds, drove back to his barn and waited for Patterson to return. Waited for confirmation.
“Make my day, Jenn.”
“I made it,” Patterson said, smiling.
In his first start after that breeze, a January allowance at Gulfstream Park, Orb continued to make McGaughey’s day, handling the class hike with aplomb.
A month later, he notched his first stakes win, taking the Fountain of Youth by a half length over Violence. Orb became a stakes winner while McGaughey was still wishing he could have been conservative.
“In a perfect world, I would have loved to run him in an allowance race going a mile and an eighth, even if I had to run him against older horses but that wasn’t going to happen, so we elected to run him in the Fountain of Youth,” McGaughey said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen that day, ‘Is he good enough, will he be able to catch up?’ He answered all those questions.”
Orb continued to prefect his late-running style, rallying from seventh for John Velazquez, who replaced Rosario in the Grade 2 stakes.
A month later, Orb continued to answer the questions, solidifying himself as one of the leaders of the division, taking the Florida Derby-G1 with a 2¾-length win over favorite Itsmyluckyday. Velazquez test drove Orb, placing him closer to the pace, stopping and starting throughout the race, just to see if it could be done.
“Sitting there before the race, I watched it on TV in the tunnel, I was just thinking to myself, ‘This horse has trained so good since the Fountain of Youth, it’ll be interesting to see if he runs that way or doesn’t run that way,’ ” McGaughey said. “I thought he ran that way.”
After the Florida Derby, McGaughey felt confident about the Kentucky Derby.
“I’m hoping I can hold what I got,” he said. “If he doesn’t move forward and he doesn’t move backward, then I think we can be competitive. I think he’ll go forward.”
Velazquez, partly because of his loyalty to Todd Pletcher, chose unbeaten Grade 1 Wood Memorial winner Verrazano for the Derby, allowing Rosario to be reunited with Orb.
Orb moved forward yet again, winning the Derby and justifying McGaughey’s conservative approach. The trainer doesn’t paint with a wide brush when it comes to big 3-year-old races in the spring. In his career, he had started just six horses in the Derby before Orb. In 1984, Pine Circle finished sixth and Vanlandingham finished 16th. In 1988, Seeking the Gold finished seventh. In 1989, Easy Goer finished second as the favorite and Awe Inspiring finished third. In 2002, Saarland finished 10th. When others throw paint, McGaughey stirs paint. Push? Not a chance.
“I do wish I had been more competitive in the Triple Crown races, but I also know what it can do to them, I’d rather have the horse for the long run than force a horse to the Derby and have something happen to him and that would be the end of it,” McGaughey said. “We’ve used that style, the Phippses, the Janneys, they don’t have Derby Fever. They feel the same way I do, they just want the horse to take them there. I would probably be more inclined to want to get there than they would, but we’re not forcing anything.”
Trainers have learned to recite the cliché about horses taking them to races like the Derby, rather than them taking the horses. Of course, 19 horses of varying ability started this year, proving that trainers might recite it, but they don’t necessarily heed it. No horse took a trainer to a race more than Orb took McGaughey to the 2013 Derby.
This Derby was about an old-school horseman, winning for old-school owners. During Derby week, Alison McGaughey handed out baseball hats that said, “Old School” on the front and “Shug Style” on the back. Asked if Shug approved of the message, Alison never hesitated, “He loves it.”
The Phippses changed McGaughey’s life when they hired him in 1986. Sure, McGaughey has it good, training blue-blooded Thoroughbreds for deep-pocketed owners, but it comes with pressure, comes with expectations.
“I’m enjoying it, with the people I’m enjoying it with, they’re enthusiastic, they’re wanting things to happen, they’re working hard. You know what I think of the Janneys and the Phippses, any success I can have for them is like the cherry on my ice cream,” McGaughey said. “Doesn’t really matter about me, it matters for the people who put the time in and for the people who provide you the horses. I’m just the guy who pushes the buttons.”