OUISVILLE, Ky. -- Every season, a group of select 2-year-olds ships up from Niall Brennan's Florida farm to the New York stable of Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey. Fourteen or so of the runners belong to Stuart Janney III, about 24 belong to his cousin Ogden "Dinny" Phipps, and six or eight are co-owned by the two. If those horses have problems and wind up on the shelf, there really aren't any more to take their place. Because Janney and Phipps don't buy at auction and race only young horses they've bred, each runner must wind up being the best horse it possibly can be.
From a group like this last year came the colt no one expected -- Kentucky Derby favorite Orb, who has freely galloped into Saturday's race with his conservative connections in tow. Foaled at Claiborne Farm and trained by Brennan in the ways of the racetrack, the 3-year-old son of Malibu Moon was regally bred out of a daughter of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled. But he was initially regarded as "something for the summer," Janney said, a colt that would develop over time, like most of the runners bred by the cousins.
"They can't be thrown into battle too early or rushed to where they end up on the sidelines," said Janney, 64. "If Shug had 20 owners and they were buying horses at the sale, maybe that's something he could do. But that's not something he can do with us. He's patient, and he's very comfortable training horses the way Uncle Ogden wanted, the way Dinny or I want them trained."
Orb, however, had other plans. With just a maiden victory under his belt at the beginning of January, he took a Gulfstream allowance and built a four-race win streak heading into the Derby, rolling in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and the Grade 1 Florida Derby before coming to train at Churchill Downs with fluid ease in the days leading up to the big dance.
"He did look like he would develop over time, and the time just got a whole lot shorter than we thought," Janney said. "You don't want to be too bold in your predictions; all you can do is look at them and figure out if they fit or not, but I think Orb does, in terms of his physical ability."
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If one family name rings synonymous with horse racing, it is Phipps. Trace through the lineage of the sport and you find horses like Bold Ruler, the sire of Secretariat campaigned through the late 1950s by the cousins' grandmother, Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps.
There aren't too many families left like this, private breeders whose contributions to racing -- both equine and human -- go back generations. The majority of today's horses are bred for commercial appeal, to be purchased at auction by first- or, at best, second-generation owners. Perfectly groomed yearlings and fleet-footed 2-year-olds are often pushed to perform too soon. Looking for a precocious youngster and a quick return, many new owners find their dreams shattered and their horses injured, often retired after momentary flashes of brilliance.
For Phipps and Janney, the opposite has been true. Their family heritage is one of longevity, of champion runners whose careers extend well past juvenile performance. They have been known to preserve top prospects for latter campaigns, and while this has paid off well in the long run, it has limited their appearances in the Derby. Whenever the race has appeared within the grasp of America's racing royalty, it has somehow managed to slip through their fingers. In 2006, for instance, they sold the dam of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, Supercharger -- in foal with the eventual victor -- for $160,000.
Mrs. Phipps sent out seven Derby contenders from 1928 to 1967 under the silks of her famed Wheatley Stable. All failed to hit the board, including Bold Ruler, who finished fourth behind Iron Liege. (Bold Ruler would win the 1957 Preakness and went on to be named 3-year-old champion and horse of the year.)
Phipps' late father, Ogden, had three Derby starters. His first, Dapper Dan, was runner-up at 30-1 to Lucky Debonair in the 1965 classic. His second, Seeking the Gold, ran worse than second for the only time in his life when he finished seventh at Churchill in 1988. That was the same season Janney watched his parents' starter, Private Terms, run ninth behind victor Winning Colors.
One year later, the legendary rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer developed when the elder Phipps' Easy Goer finished runner-up by 2½ lengths over a muddy track in the 1989 Derby. He then lost the Preakness by a neck but romped by eight lengths in the Belmont to deny Sunday Silence the Triple Crown. That year, Dinny Phipps, now 72, sent out his lone Derby starter -- Awe Inspiring, who ran third.
The family's last Derby contender, Saarland, was owned and bred by Dinny's late sister, Cynthia Phipps. He finished 10th in 2002, the same year McGaughey underwent unexpected triple bypass surgery.
Orb is the first Derby starter for Janney, whose late mother and father, Barbara and Stuart S. Janney Jr., bred and owned the Hall of Fame filly Ruffian, who is a member of Orb's female family.
Janney bypassed the race with one of his greatest contenders -- Coronado's Quest -- in 1998. From the same female family as Ruffian, the colt would go on to win the Haskell and Travers later in the year, but coming into Kentucky Derby season, he was unruly and difficult to manage. Routine surgery to fix an entrapped epiglottis remarkably improved his behavior and performance, but that was after his connections decided to skip the Run for the Roses.
"The whole idea of the horse taking you there, I think, it is an important concept," Janney said. "That's what Coronado's Quest didn't do. He had all the natural talent in the world, but for a variety of reasons, he was not emotionally where he needed to be to go to Churchill Downs. The Derby is a very difference race on a very different day, and they're seeing and doing things they will never see and do again for the first time. Had he gone, it might well have ruined him, and maybe he wouldn't have won again."
The man who once jokingly listed his biggest accomplishment in racing as "not losing my lunch between the time Coronado's Quest entered the paddock before his races and when the gates opened" will weather the pressures of this Derby week with a somewhat queasy anticipatory feeling. Laid-back Orb has given his connections nothing but confidence, taking the excitement of pre-Derby week in stride. But there's still the pressure of sending one to compete in the most prestigious horse race in the world.
"Before the big races, I get nervous, and in some ways, if I don't sleep that well, I'm not sure I'm enjoying the whole experience," Janney said, with a shade of chagrin. "I don't know if I'm a glass half full or a glass half empty sort of person. The bigger the race, the more the anticipation. It's very hard to separate out what you feel because of just being there or what you feel because basically you do have these bloodlines that go back as far as they do."
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Sometimes, McGaughey will stand in the shedrow of Barn 43 at Churchill Downs and just watch Orb grazing, or getting a bath, or posing as he has come to love to do for the crowds of photographers and onlookers that swarm the backside in the days leading up to Derby.
"He just spends the time to watch horses in ways that wouldn't be possible for me to watch a horse," Janney said of the 62-year-old conditioner. "I think he comes to a lot of his conclusions away from the race. He's an extraordinary observer of where the horse is and what the horse wants."
If Phipps Stable and Janney's program are both about bloodlines and generations of excellence, McGaughey's legacy is one of hard work, a quest for excellence and self-made fortune aided with a dash of racing luck. The man who has won more than $116.7 million in purses, with 303 graded stakes triumphs including the 1989 Belmont and nine Breeders' Cup events, came up through the training ranks with a background exactly opposite that of his prominent owners.
Born in Lexington, Ky., in 1951, McGaughey had no connections. He just enjoyed going to the races at Keeneland with his family, a member of the crowd. Leaving the track at the end of the day, he would often pick up discarded copies of the Daily Racing Form off the ground in the parking lot, taking the paper home to read the articles, not yet understanding how to read horses' past performances.
McGaughey spent a stint at the University of Mississippi studying business administration but found himself drawn to work at the racetrack. He "took a year off" and never went back to school, getting a job as a hot walker at Keeneland in 1970, making $40 a week.
In 1973, after a period at the old Liberty Bell Park in Philadelphia, McGaughey landed the job that would shape many of his standards and philosophies -- working for Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whiteley as a groom and later as an assistant for Whiteley's son, David. If something inside the souls of men guides them toward their destiny, perhaps it was felt by McGaughey at this time. Working in New York for Whiteley, who trained greats like Ruffian and Forego, McGaughey longed for the opportunity to train such champions.
"I used to walk by here, the Phipps barn, and think if I could ever get in a position to be in that barn, it would be my dream come true," McGaughey once told Maryjean Wall of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
It was a dream that would become a reality.
McGaughey went out on his own in the spring of 1979, saddling his first winner at modest Rockingham Park in New Hampshire. He spent a short time as a trainer for Pat and Ann Dunigan's Bacacita Farm, but after 2½ years, Pat Dunigan died suddenly and his wife decided to move the stable to California. McGaughey didn't want to go, so he gave up the private training job and opened a public stable. Bacacita owned everything he used, even the tack, leaving him to start over.
The trainer arrived at Keeneland with a three-horse stable in the fall. It was a hard time as he began to absorb all the expenses -- payroll, feed bills, workers' compensation -- that had previously been covered by Bacacita. McGaughey remembers paying bills on Monday and rushing his check in on Wednesday to cover them. "I'll never forget that," he said.
And yet, from this time of trial, the eventual Hall of Famer emerged stronger. He shipped his horses to Oaklawn Park for the 1981 meeting and picked up some runners for John Ed Anthony of Arkansas (the owner's Loblolly Stable had 1980 Belmont Stakes winner Temperence Hill). He soon signed up other owners to help build a stable, and at Oaklawn, his 20 horses won an astounding 13 races in 24 starts, with two seconds and one third for a 66 percent in-the-money average.
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McGaughey earned national attention in 1983 by shipping several horses to New York racing's premier summer destination -- Saratoga Race Course -- and winning stakes with them. He also captured the Grade 1 Spinster Stakes at Keeneland with hard-hitting filly Try Something New and saddled the winners of almost $1.4 million that season. The following year, his horses won more than $2 million. That was when he saddled his first Derby contenders. Vanlandingham, the eventual handicap champion of 1985, finished 17th. Pine Circle, who went on to run second in the Belmont, wound up sixth. Based at Churchill, McGaughey was on his way.
The same could not be said for Phipps Stable. "Royally bred but victory poor" was how racing columnist Billy Reed described the family's racetrack fortunes. The operation had been stagnant for years, the famed black silks with cherry cap seemingly out of commission. Then McGaughey got the call that Dinny Phipps wanted to talk with him. It was 1985, and the trainer's dreams were about to come true.
McGaughey took over as the private trainer for Phipps Stable in New York as a 34-year-old in December 1985. He turned around a long streak of bad luck at a time when the stable's homebred stock was improving, winning his first race for Phipps with Erin Bright in the Display Handicap at Aqueduct on the final day of the season. In his first full year, he won five Grade 1 races, including the Champagne Stakes with Polish Navy and the Frizette with the great Personal Ensign. The following year, he won the Woodward and the Beldame with the same horses, Personal Ensign recovering from a broken ankle as a 2-year-old to complete a perfect 13-for-13 record capped by her victory by a nose over Kentucky Derby champion Winning Colors in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Perhaps because the trainer is not given to self-promotion, the sheer force of his fiercely competitive nature has been largely lost upon the racing public over the years. Yet this is a man who once told reporters, "I don't want to play golf and play badly. I don't want to fish and be a bad fisherman."
"He's a very, very competitive person," Janney said. "I think, in a sense, that personality is what's allowed him to be competitive for so long. There's never been a period where Shug has said, 'I've done it. I can sit back a little bit.'"
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If credit for breeding generations of champions goes to Phipps and Janney, surely credit for shaping that raw talent into proven athleticism through the pursuit of perfection belongs to McGaughey alone. Demanding excellence of himself and every person around him, from the jockeys and exercise riders to the grooms and hot walkers who have been on his payroll for decades, he has planned the campaigns of champion after champion.
Both parties have benefited from their mutual regard and respect for thoroughbreds, from their convictions that a runner should develop naturally, that great horses are few and far between and that a racehorse should be given every chance to prove his or her greatness, all in good time. That is also why 2002 was the last time McGaughey saddled a Derby starter, why the Phippses have not made it a goal of reaching the race and why Janney has never been represented by a contender.
"How can you not think about winning the Derby?" McGaughey asked columnist Jody Demling of the Louisville Courier-Journal that April. "It's the most important race out there. I'm really disappointed we haven't been competitive in it ... [but] my program is not the Derby do-or-die."
Because of these facts, the sheer confidence the connections have placed in Orb and their utter excitement leading up to the big race have inspired those at Churchill Downs to regard the Florida Derby winner as the race's top contender. When the generally understated and reserved McGaughey boasts the praises of a runner, racing pundits know the horse is live.
"I'm really excited about the whole thing," said McGaughey, who will give a leg up to jockey Joel Rosario aboard Orb late in the afternoon of the first Saturday in May. "I'm as excited as I've been in a long time about a race, and I'm trying to have fun with this. I have not been like this in a long time, maybe ever, really. I think we've got a horse that's going in the right direction, and we're excited to have the opportunity to win the Kentucky Derby."