The Phipps and Janney families are two of the most recognizable names in the sport of racing. Rich equine bloodlines that go back decades have produced names like Bold Ruler, Ruffian, and Personal Ensign.
But surprisingly, the families – alone or in partnership – have never won the Kentucky Derby.
The Phipps family has owned a number of Derby starters, including second-place finisher Easy Goer in 1989. Stuart Janney III's parents sent out Private Terms a year earlier but saw him finish 9th. A decade later, Stuart had a top contender in Coronado's Quest, but the horse was a head case, and Janney and trainer Shug McGaughey decided to keep him out of the Triple Crown races.
“I've been lucky enough to have a number of good horses over the years, and a number of them since Coronado's Quest, but I don't think it's my program, and it's not Shug's program, well, we don't focus on the Derby,” Janney said. “Our horses tend to get better later and maybe they stick around longer. That suits me just fine.”
This year, though, these connections appear to have a horse that will take them to Louisville. Orb, a son of Malibu Moon, has won four consecutive races, including the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and the Grade 1 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Unlike Coronado's Quest, Janney said this colt seems to have the right temperament for a Triple Crown run.
“I think that he is very laid back. Things don't bother him either around the barn generally or on a big race day,” Janney said. “He gets more aggressive when the saddle goes on, which is a good thing, but prior to that, he just puts one foot in front of the other. In the saddling area at Gulfstream, he was just walking around and around down there looking like he'd just woken up and wanted to get back to sleep.”
Physically, Janney said Orb has really filled out as a 3-year-old and has continued to put on weight, despite some tough races. As for the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Derby, it's pretty clear that will not be an issue. Janney, and his cousin, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, rarely breed horses that can't handle the Classic distance.
“I just think that's what racing's about, more than anything else,” Janney said. “As people have bred more and more horses to go six furlongs with a mile being the outer limit, and there are lots of good races where you're asked to go further, why not breed a horse to go where others can't?”
Not that Orb started out as a Derby prospect. His mother, Lady Liberty, didn't have much of a produce record before Orb was born, so expectations weren't very high. But there was hope that the daughter of Unbridled could foal something special if paired up with a strong stallion like Malibu Moon.
“And when we got Orb, it was very clear that he was by far the best-looking of her foals to date,” said Janney. “That didn't mean we instantly said this horse was going to be x, y, and z, but he was always pretty well-thought of, whether it was at Claiborne or down with Niall Brennan or when he was in the barn. He was attractive and athletic and had a good mind about him.”
Still, Orb wasn't exactly the perfect student. He had a bit of gate trouble in his first outing at Saratoga, where he finished third. In his second start at Belmont, he slammed into the gate so hard that jockey John Velazquez, who was in the stall next to him, told McGaughey he didn't know how the horse was still standing. Orb finished fourth that day and fourth again in his next race at Aqueduct in November.
He hasn't lost since.
“I always thought that if we got those things which you hope are temporary problems behind us, that we had a pretty talented horse on our hands,” said Janney.
McGaughey said physically and mentally, Orb has come along nicely.
“Every time I look at him, I'm surprised at the little bit of improvement he makes every time I am around him,” McGaughey said. “And then just training-wise, he's matured to the point where he's pretty much pushbutton.”
It appears then, that Orb is telling these connections he's ready to take that step they don't often take.
“I think it's one thing to breed for the distance, and it's another thing to train for the Derby,” Janney said. “If they go that distance before they're ready to go that distance, or when they get into this whole series before they're ready to, then maybe they don't end up being the best horse they can be.
“If you say the important thing for us is to be in the Kentucky Derby, then it imposes a whole series of deadlines on how you're going to train the horse.”
While Janney and McGaughey don't focus on getting their horses to the Derby, they both admit it would be special to win, for a number of reasons.
“To the extent that these bloodlines have been part of my family going back to my grandmother, and also by the way, Dinny's grandmother, all of that makes it important,” said Janney.
“It'd be hard for me to put into words but it would mean an awful lot,” said McGaughey. “Now, obviously, I've never won it so I don't know what the feeling's like, but I'm looking forward to the day that I do know what it's like, and hopefully, it'll be sooner more than later.”
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