LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Every year during the last few days leading up to a Kentucky Derby, groups of those experienced in handicapping the race – though not necessarily in selecting the winner – narrow their focus to the one horse that seems to them to be peaking at just the right moment.
Word gets around, a consensus develops and the racing world has the “now horse.”
Among the results of this selection are lots of press and lower Derby odds than the horse’s form would ordinarily justify. Once in a while, it produces the winner, as was the case with Smarty Jones (’04) and Street Sense (’07). More frequently, it produces an “also ran” like Sweetsouthernsaint (’06) or Colonel John (’08). This year, the “now horse” is Orb.
Orb’s four-furlong work in 47 4/5 seconds Monday morning was hardly spectacular, but his physical appearance is impressive and he does cover considerable ground with each stride. He’s bred for the distance and has proved that he likes it, being undefeated in four starts around two turns. In both the Fountain of Youth Stakes and the Florida Derby, Orb ran his opposition down in the final furlong and won going away.
He is owned in partnership by Stuart S. Janney III and the Phipps Stable, the principal of which is Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, Janney’s first cousin. The Phipps family has been among the bluest of the blue-bloods of American racing for almost a century. Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps raced Bold Ruler under the purple and gold colors of Wheatley Stable in the ’50s. Her son, Ogden Phipps, owned and raced the magnificent Buckpasser during the following decade. Janney’s parents – his mother was Barbara Phipps before her marriage – made their splash by racing the great, but tragic filly Ruffian. And Dinny Phipps has raced three champions, most prominently Hall of Famer Inside Information.
For 28 years, the Phipps horses have been trained by another member of racing’s Hall of Fame, Shug McGaughey III. McGaughey is the last of the lot of outstanding horsemen who have worked under contract for a particular owner or stable. Among his predecessors were the Jones boys – father Ben A. and son H. A. “Jimmy” – for Calumet Farm; John Gaver for Greentree Stable; Bert Mulholland and Syl Veitch for George D. Widener; and Mack Miller, first for Charles Engelhard and, later, for Paul Mellon’s Rokeby Stable.
McGaughey has experienced outstanding success in his endeavors for the Phipps family, having trained horses of the caliber of Easy Goer, Personal Ensign and, for Janney, Haskell and Travers Stakes winner Coronado’s Quest. However, the Kentucky Derby has eluded owners and trainer.
It probably means more McGaughey, a Lexington, Ky., native, than to his employers, but a victory in the Derby is something he would love to experience. He’s only saddled six horses in the race and, of them, Easy Goer had far and away the best chance. But he ran into a horse named Sunday Silence and caught an off track he did not cherish and could do no better than second.
This year, he’s back with the “now horse” and, perhaps the time for McGaughey to smell the roses is now.