Old-school challenge

When Orb attempts to take the second jewel of the Triple Crown on Saturday in the Preakness Stakes, many feel it is a gelding named Departing who is going to make him earn it.

If the race plays out that way, and the two horses go eyeball-to-eyeball, it won't be for the first time. That said, it will be the first time the public has been able to witness it.

Orb and Departing have had different racing careers and have never faced each other on the track. They did, however, grow up together at historic Claiborne Farm.

This time three years ago Orb and Departing were merely foals, romping at their mothers' sides. They were also paddock mates, which means their first "races" were against each other, far away from the public eye. The desire to run is the legacy of the thoroughbred, and even at a young age, these horses run flat out just for the fun of it.

Unlike their private larks as foals, Saturday's race will be watched by millions tuning in to see if Orb can defeat not only Departing, but all other comers as well. For if he wins the Preakness, it is on to the Belmont and a chance at immortality. Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown and none has done it since 1978. Orb would be a welcomed -- and popular -- addition to the roster.

The talented colt has won all four of his races in 2013. As a 2-year-old, it took him a bit of time to figure out the game, and he left the starting gate far too slowly to be victorious. Once he got the hang of it, though, he has been flawless.

Orb is owned by Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable, which is operated by Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps. The two are first cousins and part of one of racing's most historic families. Much like Orb's trainer, Claude "Shug" McGaughey, they are what you would call old school.

McGaughey has trained for Phipps for decades. Not just years. Decades. The loyalty within the group runs deep. That was never more clear than when McGaughey was inducted into racing's hall of fame in 2004. During his acceptance speech he said he would like to win the Kentucky Derby for either Janney or Phipps. Nine years later, Orb made good on that wish, giving all three gentlemen their first victory in the Run for the Roses.

Out of the Unbridled mare Lady Liberty, Orb is the product of seven generations of Phipps and Janney breeding. That breeding program is based at the Hancock family's Claiborne Farm, and the Hancocks have long served as advisers on bloodstock matters.

In fact, Seth Hancock gets partial credit for Orb even existing, because at one point the cousins were debating selling Lady Liberty. Hancock agreed with Janney that she was worth hanging on to because she is a daughter of Unbridled.

"This mare had a difficult sort of production history, and so Dinny was a little bit impatient about what was going on," said Janney. "I have to say that Seth Hancock was very helpful in taking my side of the argument."

All of which makes Departing racing in the Preakness even more fascinating. The gelding races as a homebred for Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dilschneider. Perhaps some less sporting families would keep their horse at home on Preakness day so his long-ago paddock buddy would have an easier road to the Triple Crown, but that thought was quickly nixed by Departing's camp.

Hancock texted Departing's trainer, Al Stall Jr., on the way to church the day after the Derby to say he was leaning toward running. After church he called to confirm they should run.

Departing has won four of his five career starts. The only time he didn't win was when he finished third in the Louisiana Derby. He rebounded off that effort to take the Illinois Derby, which any other year may have led to a start in the Kentucky Derby.

However, this year Churchill Downs installed a points system to make it into the field. Although the Illinois Derby has long been considered a traditional prep race for the Kentucky Derby, it controversially was not included on the list.

"After the Louisiana Derby, the Kentucky Derby was off the table with the point system," said Stall. "It worked out well for us. The Illinois Derby billed itself as a prep for the Preakness, and hopefully we can make it successful for the Illinois Derby."

Collectively the bloodlines and connections of Orb and Departing hark back to racing's past. Families owned bloodlines for generations, horses weren't just raised to be sold at auction, and you ran a horse only if you thought he would win. Clearly, Departing's connections think they can win, even if it is at the expense of longtime clients and friends.

"Those families have been down the road before," said Stall. "Seeking the Gold and Forty Niner ran against each other in big races like the Derby, Haskell and Travers [in 1988], and I am sure they are all going to try to run their 'A' race."

The difference, though, is that neither Seeking the Gold nor Forty Niner won the Derby. They both lost to a filly named Winning Colors. There is a little bit more on the line not only for Orb but for horse racing as a whole, depending on how the race goes on Saturday.

Incidentally, Stall, the Hancocks and Dilschneider found themselves in a similar spot not all that long ago. It was that exact team that entered -- and won -- the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic with Blame. In doing so, they denied the immensely popular Zenyatta a perfect career, as she had to settle for second in her 20th and final start. The pride Blame's connections showed after his victory led them to receive criticism from some fans.

However, the Breeders' Cup is not really on the radar of most casual racing fans. The Triple Crown, though, is the time of year people actually pay attention to a sport that struggles for coverage.

"It is exciting and there is maybe more buildup to this than with Blame in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic," said Stall.

Hancock's decision to run Departing is a type of sportsmanship that doesn't often get enough credit. Horses avoid racing each other all the time not because of a lack of talent but because of political decisions made by their owners. Orb's value as a stallion would become astronomical should he win the Triple Crown. One has to think Claiborne is on the short list of farms he may retire to, and even if not, these families have been longtime business partners. They understand the economics involved.

While Orb and Departing likely don't remember the idyllic time they spent together as foals, you can bet their connections do. These are two of horse racing's most respected and historic families, and they will be going toe-to-toe on Saturday because it is the sporting thing to do.

As a result, Orb and Departing serve as a reminder of racing's glory days. Maybe, just maybe, that means the racing gods will reward fans with the horse that finally ends the Triple Crown drought.

But should Departing beat Orb on Saturday, that is OK, too. Orb, like any athlete, should win because he is the best, not because he was given the easiest path to victory.