Saturday, May 4, 2013

Orb: A Classic Kentucky Derby Victory

Each hoof fall was like a mark in the history books, each breath emerging from the breaths of racehorses proof of the energy they were exerting. As nineteen young Thoroughbreds raced over the sloppy oval beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs, the roar from the crowd and the announcer's call served as the background music to a scene that will be forever revered. That scene was one of one hundred thirty-nine consecutive Kentucky Derbies contested at the illustrious Louisville track, of a Derby won by a horse that has left the racing world emanating with excitement and respect for not only the colt, but his connections as well.

Throughout the day, heavy rains unleashed their wrath on Churchill Downs, leaving the track to be an oval of slop by the time the Derby horses began the famous walk-over to the frontside. But the rain ceased for the nation’s greatest race, instilling a small wave of peace over the otherwise chaotic atmosphere.

In the end, it was Orb – my top selection – that trotted back to the winner’s enclosure, caked in mud. The iconic white and red silks of the Janney family were carried by Joel Rosario, who’d ridden the extraordinarily talented colt to his first Kentucky Derby victory. But it wasn't just Rosario’s first Derby triumph. The colt also provided his owners, Stuart Janney III & Phipps Stables, with their first win in the Run for the Roses. Although they are among the most easily identified owners in the sport of Thoroughbred racing, a Derby victory had evaded them, slipping through their grasp, including the most heartbreaking of all: Secretariat.

Photo by Brittlan Wall

Perhaps the most heart-tugging component of Orb’s victory was the fact that he had awarded Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey with his first Derby win. A Kentucky native, McGaughey has for decades been a household name, conditioning the likes of the champions Easy Goer, Lure, and Personal Ensign. But like the Janney and Phipps families, the garland of red roses had been incredibly elusive for McGaughey. One of the most respected horseman in the history of Thoroughbred racing, McGaughey has had six previous starters, including Easy Goer – who finished second behind Sunday Silence, a horse he would later defeat in the Belmont Stakes (GI).

These connections had won an abundance of esteemed races throughout the history of horse racing, but not the race everyone wants to win. It was beginning to seem as if they would never stand within the Kentucky Derby winner’s enclosure with the twin spires seemingly sending them a congratulatory smile, even when a bay colt named Orb entered the picture.

Orb was never supposed to make it to the Derby. Among the 2010 crop of Phipps and Janney homebreds, Orb was clearly a talented individual, but he appeared to be a slow developer, a horse that wouldn’t find his best form until at least the summer of his three-year-old year.

Orb was third in his debut at Saratoga, rearing at the start but closing impressively to finish third behind eventual grade one winner Violence. He acted up in the gate yet again in his next start, finishing fourth. Fourth again in his following start behind future graded stakes winner Vyjack and black-type winner Clawback, Orb finally solved the puzzle in his final start as a two-year-old. Closing impressively from off the pace, Orb maintained his momentum despite going wide, scoring by two lengths while defeating eventual graded stakes winner and Derby third-place finisher Revolutionary in the process.

Once he’d won, Orb accelerated quickly, surprising his connections with the rate at which he was maturing. He commenced his sophomore campaign with a victory in a nine-furlong allowance optional claiming event at Gulfstream Park, convincing his owners and trainer to enter him in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII). For the first time in Orb’s career, the son of Malibu Moon would not be ridden by Joel Rosario.

But this did not prevent Orb from encountering success. Settling comfortably off the pace, Orb made an imposing rally to capture the race by a half-length under John Velazquez. His win was further evidence of how drastically the colt had improved, allowing his connections to realize Orb’s Derby potential.

The Florida Derby (GI) allowed Orb to confirm his connections’ belief in him. With Velazquez aboard for the second time, the direct descendant of the great mare Shenanigans – the dam of the legendary, ill-fated Ruffian, who was campaigned by Stuart Janney, Jr. and Barbara Phipps Janney – again soared past his rivals in the stretch, conquering Florida’s premier Kentucky Derby prep by 2 ¾ lengths.

Despite Orb’s victory, Velazquez opted to remain on the undefeated Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) winner Verrazano, leading Rosario to return to Orb.

But nonetheless, it was on to Louisville for the colt that was never expected to make it there. Suddenly, Orb gave his connections a valid shot at garnering their first Derby victory. His chances only seemed to excel once he reached Churchill Downs. The colt’s bay coat glimmered in the morning sun as he exercised beneath the hallowed twin spires as a wave of gossip washed over the backside, commending Orb’s work over the track. As a result of his improvement and eye-catching final preparations, Orb was made the morning line favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

Orb preparing for the Kentucky Derby
Photo by Brittlan Wall

At the Derby post draw, McGaughey told HRTV, “You know, I think that we’ve had a great time over here and. . .I’ve just really, really, really enjoyed the experience. Everything’s gone right, so that makes it. . . a little easier than maybe things not going right. . . We’re sitting here with all this behind us on Wednesday afternoon. We’ve got the morning line favorite for the Derby and I don’t know that I could be any happier.”

It turns out, Shug McGaughey would soon be even happier. As Orb walked from the barn to the saddling paddock amid a sea of people and horses, McGaughey walked ahead of his colt. He had his hopes, he had his dreams. But he didn’t have certainty of what the future held.

Orb broke well but in slightly uncomfortable fashion from the sixteenth gate – the second slot in the auxiliary gate. Rosario guided him a few paths over, allowing the colt to race among the horses near the rear of the field as nineteen Thoroughbreds thundered before the grandstand. Unexpectedly, Palace Malice seized an aggressive lead, setting the first quarter in a blistering 22.57 seconds. Orb, comfortable in sixteenth, raced approximately ten lengths off the lead at the end of these initial two furlongs, galloping wide around the clubhouse turn.

With just three horses beaten as the Derby field entered the backstretch, Orb remained steady beneath Rosario. Palace Malice maintained the brisk pace, blazing the first half-mile in 45.33 as Orb raced nearly eighteen lengths back. Down the backstretch, Orb galloped alongside second-choice Revolutionary, taking the seventeenth spot as the horses galloped midway down the far side.

As the three-year-olds neared the far turn, Orb was maneuvered to a wider position as Rosario began to encourage the colt to pick up the pace. Traveling to the far outside, Orb did just that. With powerful strides, the favorite overtook a cluster of rivals, moving determinedly on the outside, victory his main goal.

The years of carefully planned matings of Phipps horses ran through Orb’s veins as he focused on wearing down his competitors. The heart that had been bred into him shone through as, despite the mud being catapulted onto him and the obstruction of other horses forcing him to take the long way home, Orb was solely centering his attention upon what his mind, his heart, and his soul were telling him to do: win.

Somewhere within Churchill Downs’ expansive grandstand, Orb’s owners and trainer stood, cheering for him, the rest of the world forgotten. Aboard his back, Rosario rode the race of his lifetime, piloting the colt through a jungle of horses and a shower of mud as the finish line awaited, as the roar of hooves got louder, as the excitement of the crowd grew larger. The jockey – who had already won the world’s richest race, the Dubai World Cup (GI), earlier in the year aboard 2011 Kentucky Derby victor Animal Kingdom – had the same goal as the animal beneath him: winning.

At the top of the stretch, Orb had the view of being on top of the world. He wasn’t in front – yet – but he had a clear stretch ahead of him and only a handful of opponents to surpass. Rosario, vigorously throwing the reins at the colt, asked Orb for the mightiest of rallies and despite running greenly, Orb responded, taking the lead at the sixteenth pole.

With sheer ease, Orb drew away from his opponents, posting a 2 ½-length victory. The colt, in a moment of pure joy for running, perked his ears. Rosario, in a moment of euphoria, raised his arm in a gesture of victory. McGaughey, in a moment of disbelief, stood watching a television screen from within the grandstand, his eyes fixed on his colt. Orb’s owners, in a moment of jubilation, exploded into a round of congratulations.

It was like stepping into tradition-rich horse racing history. The classic owners, the classic trainer, the horse with a classic pedigree and appearance, and the jockey with classic talent had achieved racing’s greatest feat. They had won the race that had eluded them, the race that everyone in racing strives to win.

After the race, McGaughey’s true class was evident. He told NBC Sports, “It’s the thrill of a lifetime. It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time and to see it come true, it’s just. . . it’s beyond words for me. . . I’m tickled to death for myself, I’m tickled to death for the people that put so much time into him back at the barn, and. . . I’m tickled for the Janneys and the Phippses and their families, too, because. . . what they’ve put into this game, and to be able to reap a reward like this, they really deserve it.”

Like the Kentucky Derby has escaped Orb’s connections until today, the Triple Crown has been intangible since 1978. But Orb, who has improved so significantly in so little time and continues to improve, provides a considerable opportunity to see this drought end as well. It only seems right with connections as classic as his for Orb to be the one. Trials and tribulations await, but Orb has overcome the impossible thus far. Who’s to say he can’t do it again?

Orb, my number one pick for the Derby, was a featured PTG Derby Hopeful. Read that article here.

Orb and Shug McGaughey preparing for the presentation of the
blanket of Red Roses
Photo by Brittlan Wall

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