Persistent rain and temperatures in the mid-50s couldn't put a damper on this Kentucky Derby. More than 150,000 turned out, millions more tuned in – the biggest television viewing audience since 1992 – and near-record dollars poured into the wagering pools.
It was old school vs. new school. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey brought one horse, Orb, to his first Derby in more than a decade. He was up against the likes of a five-horse juggernaut from Todd Pletcher, who seems to have an unlimited supply of well-bred and expensive colts and fillies, along with an endless supply of owners to restock his barn year after year. Many of those owners seem to have their eyes fixed on a single goal: victory in the Kentucky Derby.
Cousins Ogden Mills Phipps (known throughout the racing world as “Dinny”) and Stuart Janney III could have gone through life contentedly without a Kentucky Derby trophy in their case. If they were that anxious to win one, their pockets are as deep as anyone's in this game, and they can afford to play at the highest level of the yearling or 2-year-old Thoroughbred sales.
But where Phipps and Janney come from, racing's biggest prizes are meant to be earned with horses developed over generations of trial and error, using bloodlines that have been in their own families for decades.
Orb is a product of that philosophy.
Sometimes you cull your herd, selling mares that haven't been as productive as you'd like. The two men nearly did that with Lady Liberty, the dam of Orb, after her first foal, a son of Alphabet Soup named Cause of Freedom born in 2006, showed little early in his career. Debuting in September of his 2-year-old season in a maiden turf route, Cause of Freedom passed a few horses late in the stretch, and then disappeared for nearly a year. It took Cause of Freedom, who was eventually gelded, eight races to break his maiden.
Lady Liberty's 2007 (a filly by Strong Hope) and 2008 (colt by Arch) had not run when the time came to fish or cut bait as the 2009 breeding season approached. She was barren a year after producing the 2008 foal.
Janney – whose family's association with Claiborne Farm, like the Phipps family's, goes back many years – credits Seth Hancock for recommending the partners take one more chance with Lady Liberty, at a time they were thinking of selling her.
“He said, ‘Look, she's a good-looking mare, she's by Unbridled. Unbridled is getting to be a good broodmare sire, and we need to give her some more chance,'” Janney recalled Saturday evening in the glow of victory.
They agreed to send her to Spendthrift Farm, where Malibu Moon was standing. The son of A.P. Indy had begun his career at Country Life Farm in Maryland, Janney's home state, and then moved to Kentucky after his first crops enjoyed quick success.
After foaling Orb, the result of that mating to Malibu Moon, Lady Liberty experienced reproductive difficulties in 2011-12, but produced a colt by Flatter earlier this year.
But there's so much more to this family than Lady Liberty, who during her racing career won 4-of-23 starts and earned over $200,000, though she never could get black type despite multiple tries in stakes races in New York, Kentucky, and Delaware.
Second dam Mesabi Maiden (by Cox's Ridge) won just three races, but one of them was the G2 Black-Eyed Susan, on Preakness Eve in 1996. Third dam Steel Maiden (by Damascus), racing for the Locust Hill Farm of Janney's late parents, won two stakes at Laurel and finished second in the 1986 Black-Eyed Susan.
The fourth dam, Laughter, was a daughter of Bold Ruler, who carried the Phipps family's Wheatley Stable colors through a memorable Horse of the Year campaign in 1957, though falling short as the favorite in that year's Kentucky Derby. Bold Ruler went on to be many-time leading sire at Claiborne Farm, his best son being Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Laughter was a decent runner who produced Private Terms, who carried a perfect 7-for-7 record for the Janneys as the favorite in the 1988 Kentucky Derby, only to be soundly defeated.
The fifth dam, Shenanigans, produced Hall of Fame filly Ruffian, whose only defeat in 11 starts came in the ill-fated match race against Foolish Pleasure in 1975.
The sixth dam, Bold Irish, was bred by Arthur B. Hancock Sr., grandfather of the current Claiborne Farm president.
Breeders who have watched their own stock being led into the Kentucky Derby winner's circle are not as rare as you might think in this era of instant gratification. In fact, seven of the last 10 Derby winners were bred by their owners.
None of the other homebred winners is quite like Orb. This year's Kentucky Derby winner is a relic that almost certainly means more to three historic families of the turf than the rest of us can ever appreciate.
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