The Kentucky Derby is the great equalizer. Sometimes the little guy wins – think Funny Cide or Mine That Bird – and sometimes the big guys get the prize. On Saturday at rainy Churchill Downs, a burgeoning star named Orb, owned by a pair of the sport's most prominent horsemen, handled by a Hall of Fame trainer, and ridden by the nation's leading jockey, splashed to a resounding and popular Derby victory.
The result was especially satisfying for trainer Shug McGaughey, a dyed-in-the-wool Kentuckian whose last formidable Derby contender, Easy Goer, finished second behind Sunday Silence in 1989. Easy Goer went on to win the Belmont Stakes but McGaughey, who would rather hang around at his barn than take a vacation, hadn't won a Triple Crown race since.
On Saturday at rainy Churchill Downs, a burgeoning star named Orb, owned by a pair of the sport's most prominent horsemen, handled by a Hall of Fame trainer, and ridden by the nation's leading jockey, splashed to a resounding and popular Derby victory.
Orb's owners, first cousins Stuart Janney III and Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, have deep roots at the highest levels of racing, yet they too celebrated their first Derby victory on Saturday. Two men of fabulous means spent the good part of a lifetime chasing the roses, and the feat itself took just 2 minutes, 2.89 seconds. That's how long it took Orb and jockey Joel Rosario to cover the one-and-one-quarter miles and defeat runner-up Golden Soul by two-and-one-half lengths. The wagering favorite in a field of 19, Orb returned $12.80 for a $2 win bet.
As often is the case for Derby winners, it took a little divine providence just to make it to the starting gate. Orb had a disappointing 2-year-old year, losing his first three starts, and McGaughey said the Derby wasn't even on his radar when he arrived in Florida to prepare the colt for his 3-year-old campaign. But the biggest break for the Orb camp came a few years earlier, when Phipps decided to sell Orb's dam, Lady Liberty, only to have Janney talk him out of it.
“I didn't like the mare,” Phipps said in the Derby afterglow. “I tried to persuade my cousin to sell her … but he outsmarted me and bred her to Malibu Moon and here we are.”
Janney said the dam had had a very checkered history as a broodmare, hence Phipps' eagerness to sell her. But by taking the path of greater resistance, Janney and Phipps now own both the dam of a Kentucky Derby winner and a Kentucky Derby winner himself. And, if the trainer is correct in his assessment, Orb could develop into one of the greatest horses of his generation.
"I think we've got our hands on a pretty special horse"
“I think there's more there,” McGaughey said Saturday night. “I don't think we've bottomed out. I think he's still learning how to run a little bit. All winter we felt the same thing, he would take the lead like he would win off and then kind of ease himself up. His allowance race, the Fountain of Youth, the Florida Derby, and even today, we made the lead and Joel did the right thing and let him drift out a bit and they went on to finish. But I see some things that make me think that there is more there … I think we've got our hands on a pretty special horse.”
While much of the pre-Derby buzz centered around jockeys – Rosie Napravnik's bid to become the first female to ride a Derby winner, and Kevin Krigger's quest to become the first black jockey to pilot a Derby winner since 1902 – the post-race talk was all about the horse. Orb came out of the Derby in good spirits, McGaughey said, and was put on a van bound for New York on Sunday morning. Then it will be on to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 18.
As Orb and his winning connections move toward another potential date with destiny, much of the racing world is already looking farther ahead. This year's crop of 2-year-olds contains the next Kentucky Derby winner somewhere in its midst, the golden needle in a 25,000-horse haystack.
“To tell you the truth, I can't wait,” McGaughey said. “We'll just have to go back and monitor him. I think he'll come out of the race good; he's been coming out of his other races good. In fact, it has surprised me how well he has come out of his races, especially in Florida; it's hot down there. So we're set up better than anybody, and if everything's right, I can't wait to get to the Preakness and do it again.
As Orb and his winning connections move toward another potential date with destiny, much of the racing world is already looking farther ahead. This year's crop of 2-year-olds contains the next Kentucky Derby winner somewhere in its midst, the golden needle in a 25,000-horse haystack. In early autumn, those horses will begin the process of accumulating Kentucky Derby points in designated stakes races.
In the end, the new Road to the Kentucky Derby points system, introduced last year, was a qualified success. A few tweaks may be forthcoming, but the primary goals were accomplished: Interest in the traditional Derby prep races spiked, and no serious Derby contender was left on the outside looking in. And perhaps most important, by all accounts, the best horse emerged victorious.
Score one for the big guys.