BALTIMORE — Growing up, Kentucky Derby winner Orb was just another horse who fit in with the crowd.
Never caused problems. Never raised a ruckus. Never got sick or hurt while frolicking in the fields of Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., with his pals, or when he was learning how to be a racehorse at Niall Brennan’s farm in Ocala, Fla. Did everything asked of him.
“A model citizen,” says Claiborne Farm manager Bradley Purcell.
Brennan remembers the colt did everything right. “His workouts, his focus, he didn’t fret about things, he was enjoying it,” he says.
And wouldn’t you know it: In his racing debut, last Aug. 18 at Saratoga, Orb leaped in the air as the gates opened and trailed by 14 lengths early on in the seven-furlong race. He made a remarkable recovery, though, and finished third, just 1¼ lengths behind the winner.
“He was so far behind,” recalled his jockey, Joel Rosario. “He made up a lot of ground, and I was impressed. My agent told me, ‘maybe he’s going to be a nice horse.’”
A few more growing pains followed, like smacking his head in the starting gate in his second race. But a two-month break allowed trainer Shug McGaughey to work out the colt’s gate issues, and by his fourth start, Orb had found the winner’s circle — a two-length victory at Aqueduct on Nov. 24.
He hasn’t lost since, winning three times at Gulfstream Park, including the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby, building confidence and gaining experience along the way. And then came the ultimate moment: charging down the stretch over a sloppy track and winning the Derby by 2½ lengths.
“I wish I could tell you back then he looked like a horse who could win the Kentucky Derby,” Purcell said. “He had good size, and strength. All we do is let them grow and Mother Nature does the rest.”
So far, so good, and a win over eight rivals in Saturday’s $1 million Preakness would send Orb back home to New York for the Belmont Stakes on June 8 with a chance to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
“I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said I don’t think about (the Triple Crown), because I do,” McGaughey said. “I try to block it out, but if you’re in this position, anybody would think about it. It’s a thrilling thought, but we’ve got to get by Saturday. If we do, the next three weeks will be a lot of fun.”
Orb seems to be enjoying it, too, appearing cool and calm around the Pimlico stakes barn in the mornings while hundreds of people are milling around, many angling for the best photo op in cramped quarters. He was the same way at Churchill Downs.
“He’s pretty laid back,” McGaughey said.
A bay son of Malibu Moon, out of the mare Lady Liberty, co-owner Stuart Janney III came up with the name.
“I like it. Every poet who refers to the moon, uses the word orb,” Janney explained. “I try to name the horses to go with the mare and stallion.”
Orb’s bloodlines are filled with champions. Malibu Moon is a son of 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy, and currently is North America’s second-leading sire. Lady Liberty is a daughter of 1990 Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled.
Still, there was not much fanfare when Orb was born in February 2010. It was a “textbook” birth, Purcell said, adding Orb was probably 120-130 pounds — the average weight for a foal. He was among a group of eight colts who spent hours together in the same field. One of them, Departing, is running in the Preakness.
When Orb was sent to Ocala in August 2011, Brennan already had an idea of what he was getting since he’d been the Claiborne to chart Orb’s development, as well as dozens of other horses.
“He always looked good physically, but there were others that were the same,” Brennan said. “At that time, it’s like kids on a soccer field playing around and as you get into early spring, they start separating themselves. You begin to see their athletic ability and Orb at this time a year ago was doing very well.”
Orb was among the first group of Brennan’s 2-year-olds to be sent out to their respective trainers. Also under his care at the time were two other Derby horses — Revolutionary and Palace Malice — and Den’s Legacy, who was on the Derby trail for a while.
Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, who co-owns Orb with Janney, remembers seeing the horse early on and not being overly impressed.
“I think we really thought he was just a horse,” Phipps said. “I don’t think even Shug thought he was much better than that. But after he came back from the Fountain of Youth he came back looking bigger, better and stronger and then he did the same thing after the Florida Derby. And after the Derby. Let’s just hope that’s the way he’s headed (going into the Preakness).”
Despite Orb’s troubles at the start of his racing career, McGaughey now marvels at what may be the best horse he’s ever trained over a 34-year career that includes 1989 Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer and many female champions topped by undefeated Personal Ensign.
“He has filled out so much physically,” McGaughey said. “I look at him and I can’t believe what I’m seeing from last November to now. Mentally, everything has come together. He was a bit difficult at the gate all of his 2-year-old year and that’s all behind him. I couldn’t be more pleased with his development.”
During his win streak, Orb had a new rider for the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby in John Velazquez because Rosario had a prior racing commitment. Rosario regained the mount for the Derby after Velazquez chose Verrazano as his Derby horse. On the day Orb won the Florida Derby, Rosario was in Dubai winning the $10 million World Cup aboard Animal Kingdom.
“This is very good,” he said of Orb’s win. “He’s really getting much better. He showed it in the Kentucky Derby, and I hope he shows it on Saturday.”
Orb is considered a closer, but McGaughey says he’s versatile.
“He comes from back, but they don’t have to take him back,” McGaughey said. “It depends on the color of the race. If it’s a fast pace, he’ll be off of it, but if it’s slow, I think he’ll actually be laying up close like he was in the Florida Derby within four, five, six lengths. And he has got enough of a punch that you don’t take him out of the game plan when you do lay up close.”
McGaughey does not take all the credit for Orb’s success. Credit also goes to exercise rider Jenn Patterson, who has spent as much time with Orb as anyone. She was with him in the weeks before the Florida Derby, and would make the weekly three-hour round trip drive from Gulfstream Park to Payson Park for Orb’s workouts.
“Without her, we wouldn’t be here,” McGaughey said. “It’s not only her riding ability, it’s her horsemanship and dedication to the whole thing. Nobody will know how much I appreciate her and what I think of her and her abilities. The rapport we have between each other... I think it’s a pretty remarkable relationship.”
And because of it, Orb no longer fits in with the crowd. He stands out.