You can see it in his demeanor, his presence, the way he carries himself. You can see it in his stride, long and fluid, his lengthy, muscular physicality and his relentless determination.
Orb is a Derby horse.
He is also a horse in the hands of old-school connections, the product of generations of bloodlines that have never seen a sales ring and a horse developed methodically and skillfully by people who realize that there is more to the game than precocious speed unveiled abruptly by horses still in the fragile throes of youth.
The Derby is my dream. Hopefully, this is the one who can take us there.
”-- Shug McGaughey, trainer of Orb
There are few major titles missing from trainer Shug McGaughey's resume, which was sufficiently impressive nine year ago to merit entry to the Hall of Fame despite the disadvantage in numbers that has always given a statistical edge to others. McGaughey has never managed a stable of 200, preferring instead to train for an exclusive handful of owners who breed to race. Nevertheless, he has developed nine champions, the winners of almost every race of consequence run in New York and dozens elsewhere. During a relationship with the Phipps Family now in its 23rd year he has trained a litany of prominent horse, none more accomplished than the undefeated Personal Ensign, whose 13-race career ended in an unforgettably dramatic victory over Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff and all of her richly talented offspring, nine Breeders' Cup winners and the owners of almost 250 graded stakes titles.
He trained the winners of six races, five of them graded stakes, on a single afternoon at Belmont Park in 1993 and established himself as a titan among American trainers, unwaveringly old-school in every respect, universally esteemed. But he is a native Kentuckian, so "The Derby is my dream," he said on Saturday after Orb's powerful victory in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. "Hopefully, this is the one who can take us there."
Easy Goer almost took him to the Derby winner's circle but a muddy track and a very talented Sunday Silence denied that hallowed title to what was probably the best horse McGaughey has ever trained. The quirky, often fractious Coronado's Quest was prominent in the 1998 chase toward the Derby but did not make the race. McGaughey and his owners have always been on the same page insofar as the Derby is concerned. The horse takes you there. However sweet the goal, they are immune to Derby Fever but the colt McGaughey currently trains for Stuart Janney III and the Phipps Family Stable is in every respect the kind fully capable of rewarding enduring patience.
Orb is a Derby horse in every respect, a colt who in other hands may well never have had the opportunity to develop into a potential classic winner, a product of patience and horsemanship. He is without tactical speed, an indictment in the eyes of many, in this case a virtue.
The development of Orb has been like watching layers peeled from an onion. Off without urgency in his career debut last summer at Saratoga, he made a huge late run to finish less than two lengths behind the ill-fated Violence, who he would later defeat in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Entered at a more suitable mile and a 7-10 favorite in his second start, he was again difficult at the gate, off slowly and subsequently never asked by the rider. Orb finally broke through in his fourth start, won a maiden race at Aqueduct, a significant move forward and an indication that he was indeed learning what being a racehorse is about. He has not been beaten since that day and with victories in the Fountain of Youth and the Grade 1 Florida Derby.
At this crucial juncture of development and racing calendar he continues to improve in meaningful increments. Orb's Florida Derby suggested strongly that he is capable of staying the 10 furlongs required of the Derby contender. He ran past a very promising colt, Itsmyluckyday, in the Gulfstream stretch and appeared to have more to give at the wire. He is the kind of horse in April that you want in May. Orb may also be the horse that brings the sport back to its roots, a throwback in many respects.
He has no connection to the Middle East. He was not purchased for seven figures at auction or privately after a flashy early win. He is not owned by 100 partners. He is a reminder of what once was -- the era in which people bred horse to race, not sell and racing was undoubtedly a game for the elite, still the Sport of Kings. The Janney and Phipps families have been involved in racing for generations, seen the sport and the business change and endure as patrons of the game perennial as the Triple Crown.
"You know you can be in this game so many different ways," Janney said after the Florida Derby. "You can buy them or, like I do, try to breed them. I was very lucky a lot of years ago to take over some very good bloodlines from my parents. And this was particularly a bloodline that was their best. So I feel a great sense of pride that we've been able to produce some very good horses out of this particular line because it goes back through my parents to my grandmother. And it's a lot of fun, frankly, to run this horse with Dinny Phipps. His father was very special. I really wasn't necessarily going to get into the game. He came to me and said, 'I'll be your partner. I'd like it if Shug trains the horses we own together.' And for me it was wonderful because, first of all, I enjoy doing it and, secondly, I got the benefit of his advice and I also got a reasonably good trainer. So to do this with the extended members of my family is also a wonderful aspect of this."
Being a Derby horse, strengths and connections notwithstanding, guarantees nothing beyond an engagement in Louisville. But at a time during which the sport has absorbed great punishment, much of it imagined and manufactured, a Derby victory by Orb, whose connections are unassailable, would be a breath of fresh air, a return, if only briefly and essentially symbolic, to a lost era.
A Triple Crown without controversy and innuendo disguised as journalism would be a refreshing change.