Horses wound and horses heal. A young man once let his father call a coin toss, and from that simple act the greatest racehorse in history ran in someone else's silks. Another young man once watched a great filly mortally injured right in front of him—and in front of America—a very famous filly owned by his parents. And a young trainer with bluegrass in his veins lost a Kentucky Derby that he thought he could have won, and for more than two decades wondered if he would ever get the chance to make it right. They threw their passion into the game, as horsemen do, and only the game could fully give back what the game had taken away. Their time would come when the horse was right.
So the three of them gathered in Louisville last Saturday as a cold rain fell on Churchill Downs, drenching the crowd of 151,616 that had come for the 139th Kentucky Derby. It was a day when fans sought cover beneath overhangs, hid their day's outfits beneath garbage bags and ponchos and huddled against a stiff wind and 55¬∫ temperatures. The track was turned to soup. Late in the afternoon Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps, 72, and his first cousin Stuart Janney III, 64, sat in box seats with their families.
It was from there that they watched as a powerful 3-year-old bay colt named Orb, owned by the two of them and trained by Claude R. (Shug) McGaughey, splashed beneath the twin spires at the end of a breathtaking three-furlong drive under dynamic jockey Joel Rosario to win the Derby by a dominant 2½ lengths as the 6--1 cofavorite. The taciturn Phipps, a stout man with a round face and a perpetual squint, turned to his kids at the finish and said, deadpan, "Well, that was all right."
McGaughey, who has trained for Phipps and Janney for 25 years, would betray much more an hour later when he said, "I think there's more there; I don't think we've bottomed out." Orb, named in reference to his sire, Malibu Moon, has won five consecutive races, including all four of his starts this year. He did not just win the Derby, but in running three-to-six paths wide for the entire 1¼ miles, he also proved himself decisively the best in the field of 19 horses and a genuine threat to win the May 18 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore and chase the Triple Crown. For the three principals, it was a cleansing moment deep into their long and distinguished racing lives, each of which had been marked by a significant and infamous trough.
In August 1969 Dinny Phipps was a 28-year-old Yale graduate and financier who had also dived into the family business of thoroughbred racing and breeding, which had been established in 1926 by his and Janney's grandmother, Gladys Mills Phipps. Through an unusual arrangement between the Phipps family and the owners of Virginia's Meadow Stable, the Phippses had agreed to divvy up the offspring of its stallion Bold Ruler with a coin flip. Dinny held that season's breeding rights to Bold Ruler but was away on business. His father, Ogden (who died in 2002), won the coin flip with Penny Tweedy, the daughter of Meadow Stable's Christopher Chenery, who wanted to fulfill her late father's dream of winning the Derby. Ogden's choice resulted in a filly his family named The Bride. Tweedy was left with a colt who became Secretariat.
Six years later Stuart Janney III was a 26-year-old law school graduate working as a legislative aide to U.S. senator Charles Mathias of Maryland. On July 5, 1975, Janney drove north to Belmont Park racetrack to watch his parents' unbeaten filly Ruffian run a nationally televised match race the next day against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.
Less than a half mile into the race, Ruffian took a narrow lead and then broke down horrifically, sesamoid bones shattered in her right foreleg. Janney went to Ruffian's barn and saw the damaged filly with her head on trainer Frank Whiteley's shoulder. He heard the next morning from his father that she had been euthanized. "I remember being so crushed," says Janney. The family spent much of the rest of that summer at their house in Maine answering Ruffian's fan mail, which Janney says filled a bedroom, in stacks two feet high.
Fourteen years later, on the first Saturday in May 1989, Shug McGaughey was a 38-year-old trainer, a native of Lexington who had handled unbeaten filly Personal Ensign for Phipps's father the previous year and now brought his long-striding colt Easy Goer to the Kentucky Derby. It was so cold that day that sleet pelted the Downs and Easy Goer was beaten by Sunday Silence. McGaughey has never watched a video of the full race, though he drew some solace from Easy Goer's eight-length victory in the Belmont five weeks later, which denied Sunday Silence the Triple Crown. McGaughey returned to the Derby just once in the ensuing 23 years, to finish 10th with a big, dull colt named Saarland in 2002, refusing to force a lesser horse into the race.
Janney and Phipps have long since emerged from their setbacks in the 1970s to achieve success together as owners and breeders. "There are highs and lows," said Janney after the Derby. "[Ruffian] was a big low, way down, but if you can't take the lows...." They have won important races but never the most important race. McGaughey, 62, was inducted into the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 2004, but never let go of the Derby. "I don't really know that I need it to punctuate my career," McGaughey said four days before the race. "But I need it [for] myself." Two hours after Orb's victory, he stood beneath dim lights at a party in the Derby museum and said, in his thick drawl, "My life is pretty good right now."
The long trip to that moment began when Janney's father, Stuart Janney Jr., was killed in a one-car auto accident in 1988, at 81. Stuart III was absorbed in a financial career then and was disinclined to take up his father's stable. His uncle, Ogden Phipps, Dinny's father, made a strong case for him to stay in the sport, offering, "I'll be your partner on some of these horses."
Phipps allowed that their shared horses would wear the white-and-red Janney silks and that Janney would get all the trophies. Phipps attached one other condition: McGaughey would train their horses.
McGaughey's connection to racing began with his after-school visits to the mutuel windows at Keeneland and continued with low-level jobs on the backside. He worked for trainer David Carr in Kentucky and for Frank and David Whiteley in New York and South Carolina before becoming a trainer in 1979. He was first introduced to the Phipps family when he played a round of golf with Ogden in '83, but it was Dinny who hired him to replace Angel Penna as the family's exclusive trainer two years later. "I watched Shug for a long time," says Phipps. "He was a great filly trainer; that was important because we breed our own stock, we don't go to the sales." They have been together 28 years, the equivalent of 10 lifetimes in a business in which loyalty is fleeting and new-money owners jump trainers as quickly as they snatch up yearlings.
In 1999 the Janney-Phipps team foaled a filly by '90 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Unbridled and named her Lady Liberty. She raced through her 4-year-old season with modest success, winning four nonstakes races and $202,045. As a broodmare, her first three foals were a colt (later gelded) in 2006 who won three times in 17 starts, a filly in '07 who raced just once and a colt in '08 who never raced. In '09 she was barren. "I wanted to sell her," says Phipps. Janney did not. Seth Hancock, the owner of Kentucky's Claiborne Farm, a longtime Phipps (and Phipps-Janney) adviser, sided with Janney and persuaded Phipps to try again. Lady Liberty was bred to stallion Malibu Moon, and the resulting foal was Orb.
The colt was beaten in his first three races, at Saratoga (August), Belmont (September) and Aqueduct (November). "He had excuses," says McGaughey. "He had problems in the [starting] gate. I felt like things would still go our way. But I didn't expect him to bring us here, at that point." Orb won his first race two days after Thanksgiving at Aqueduct and then won his first race of 2013 in a 11/8-mile stake on Jan. 13 at Florida's Gulfstream Park, winter home for some of McGaughey's horses.
Jockey issues arose next. Rosario, 28, who is from the Dominican Republic and is one of the hottest riders in the U.S., and his agent, Ron Anderson, were told by McGaughey that Orb might skip the Feb. 23 Fountain of Youth Stakes, a Derby prep race. Anderson put Rosario atop Speak Logistics in the same race, and when McGaughey changed his mind and decided to run Orb, he needed a new rider and went with respected veteran John Velazquez. Orb won the race by half a length over the previously unbeaten Violence. Five weeks later, when Orb won the Florida Derby, Rosario was riding 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom to victory in the $10 million Dubai World Cup; Velazquez rode Orb again.
Yet Velazquez was also the regular rider for unbeaten Verrazano and trainer Todd Pletcher. Faced with a choice, Velazquez, who has a long relationship with Pletcher, went with Verrazano. McGaughey turned back to Rosario. "We thought, politically, Johnny would go with Verrazano," says Anderson. "Three other Derby trainers called me about Joel [pronounced Jo-ELL]. When a guy gets on a roll like this kid, he could jump on a stable pony at the barn and think he could win a race." (Verrazano and Velazquez finished 14th last Saturday.)
When race day turned wet and chilly, McGaughey remembered that Easy Goer had lost in the cold and felt uneasy. When Rosario broke from the gate and dropped to 16th place before racing four wide into the first turn, McGaughey fretted. "Until I saw the time," he says.
On the front, Palace Malice was humming along in 22.57 seconds for the first quarter mile, 45.33 for the half mile (third fastest in Derby history) and 1:09.80 for the three-quarter mile (fifth fastest ever). Among horses in the top five at the three-quarters pole, only Oxbow (trained by 77-year-old D. Wayne Lukas and ridden by 50-year-old Gary Stevens) would finish in the top six. The rest were cooked.
Rosario waited until well down the backside to ask Orb for run, but when he did, the colt surged, passing a dozen horses in 14 seconds and reeling in leader Normandy Invasion at the eighth pole before carrying Ruffian's colors under the wire 2½ lengths clear.
The sport now turns its eyes to Baltimore. It is there that Orb will take aim at completing the next step in one of the most stubborn droughts in any game: The last horse to win the Triple Crown was Affirmed in 1978. It was at Pimlico, more than four decades ago, that 14-year-old Stuart Janney III was in the saddling paddock for the Preakness with his extended family when he was escorted into a clubhouse bar by his uncle Ogden. "He ordered two shots of whiskey, and one of them was in front of me," recalled Janney last Saturday night. "My uncle took one and, bop, drank it just like that. Then he looked at me and said, 'Come on, we're ready to go.'"
It is time to go again. Now it is not an uncle who beckons, it is history, asking if perhaps this is the horse.
Rosario (left) is so hot, says his agent, "he could jump on a stable pony at the barn and think he could win."
To see exclusive Kentucky Derby video from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior writer Tim Layden and photographer Bill Frakes, go to SI.com/mag
Photograph by HEINZ KLUETMEIER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
WIDE WAS RIGHT Orb (far left) raced six horses off the rail around the far turn before Rosario went to the whip to take the lead from Normandy Invasion (red cap).
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SHRUG OF SHUG McGaughey (below, in blue tie) was worried about the slow start for Orb (far left, red sleeves) until he saw that the race leaders had run the third-fastest half mile in Derby history.