Tradition steals Derby spotlight

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's not the business of horse racing or life to reward traditional virtues, but when they do the world somehow seems a far better place. And so when Orb rolled around the second turn Saturday, advancing from 17th to fifth and making up eight lengths on the leaders, many in the throng at Churchill Downs sensed something very special was about to happen: that generations of patience and decades of adhering to the sport's time-honored priorities were about to be rewarded and that those moments of frustration still lingering in memory and history were about to be dispelled with a victory in the 139th Kentucky Derby.

At the top of the stretch, Orb still faced a deficit of five lengths. But he was advancing through the slop like a marauder, and by mid-stretch, he had nearly caught the leader, Normandy Invasion. The rain that had pummeled Churchill Downs for hours finally had stopped; an anticipatory calm had descended. And the final furlong of the Derby became a spectacle of superiority. Orb drew clear to win by 2½ lengths, with Golden Soul rallying for second and Revolutionary for third.

"A day like today might have cost me one Kentucky Derby," Orb's trainer, Shug McGaughey, said later, referring to Easy Goer's loss to Sunday Silence on a muddy track in 1989. "Maybe it turned around and helped us today."

A 62-year-old native of Lexington, Ky., McGaughey is among the sport's most respected and honored horsemen, a member of the Hall of Fame. He has trained nine champions, including the great Personal Ensign, who retired undefeated in 1988 after winning the Breeders' Cup Distaff, her 13th victory. But until Saturday, he never had won a Kentucky Derby.

A trainer for 34 years, McGaughey had saddled only six horses in the Derby. Instead of pushing young horses to develop their talents, he always chose to wait on them, let them develop in their own time.

He said he couldn't have imagined in January that he would be here, at Churchill Downs, on the first Saturday in May with Orb, a colt whose talent seemed overwhelmed by immaturity. And even as Orb began to mature and develop and figure the game out, even when he won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, McGaughey insisted that he wouldn't bring the colt to the Derby. Orb, the trainer said, would have to bring him. And, of course, Orb did exactly that by winning the Florida Derby.

And the owners of Orb, Stuart Janney and Ogden Mills Phipps, never pressured their trainer to get a promising colt to the Derby. They never "interfered," as McGaughey put it, with a somewhat sheepish grin. Instead they shared that traditional value of patience, and like their trainer they respected their horses enough to let them develop in their own time. The Janneys have owned and bred horses for decades, but have had only one Derby starter, Private Terms, who ran ninth in 1988. And before Saturday, Phipps' only starter in the Kentucky Derby was Awe Inspiring, who ran third to Sunday Silence.

Phipps, the chairman of The Jockey Club, is the son of Ogden Phipps, who owned Easy Goer and almost owned Secretariat, who famously and spectacularly swept the 1973 Triple Crown. As part of a foal-sharing agreement with Penny Chenery of Meadow Stud, Phipps lost Secretariat in a coin flip. (Actually he won the flip, leaving an unborn foal by Bold Ruler to Chenery). He lost, in other words, the greatest horse of the modern era by a turn of a coin, and so there was reason, if anybody in pondering such things would surrender to the possibility of fate, to think that the Derby just wasn't meant to be for some people, no matter how much they might seemingly deserve such a victory.

Wed to the sport's traditional values, McGaughey and his owners perhaps seemed long shots to ever win the sport's most famous race. And then there was Orb, whose fifth consecutive victory enabled the sport to reward its acolytes that remain faithful to its values.

This Derby also rewarded Joel Rosario, the hottest jockey in the country who got the mount on Orb when John Velazquez chose instead to ride Verrazano, who finished 14th Saturday. The Derby confirmed Rosario as the nation's top jockey, moving him atop the national standings, with his mounts having earned more than $7.3 million this year.

And so Saturday afternoon, after hours of rain and anxiety, about the time Orb surged to the front in the 139th Kentucky Derby, a calm descended on Churchill Downs, and for that singular moment, for those who follow and love horse racing, the world seemed a better place.