The introduction of Orb to the racing world began with few expectations or fanfare, but simply the fourth race on the card at historic Saratoga on Saturday, August 18th. The race featured eight two-year-old colts looking for the first victory of their career, led by Violence, a well-intentioned first-time starter trained by Todd Pletcher that went to the post as the 4/5 odds-on favorite. Four other colts in the field were making the first start of their career, including Orb, the second-longest shot on the board at odds of 29/1.
Orb broke poorly from the gate in the seven-furlong maiden special weight race, running last after both the quarter and half-mile marks. As the field entered the top of the lane, the eventual Kentucky Derby winner began to find his best stride with less than a quarter mile to go, moving from the rear of the field to within just a few lengths of the lead. Orb failed to get to the wire ahead of his rivals on this day but his strong late kick propelled him to a third-place finish, just a length behind the top two finishers, Violence and Titletown Five.
While some trainers pile up gaudy statistics for first-time starters, like Todd Pletcher (35% Win% in 2012) and Bob Baffert (23% Win% in 2012), Shug McGaughey tends to take it slow with his debut runners (he won just one time with 23 first-time starters in 2012). The same holds true with the development of McGaughey's two-year-old horses. Pletcher and Baffert once again top the standings for sending out juvenile winners (34% and 26% in 2012, respectively), while Shug bides his time and waits for his two-year-olds to round into form (7% juvenile winners from 30 starters). And so it went for Orb the first few months of his racing career.
Following his defeat at Saratoga in his debut, Orb returned to the track in early September at Belmont Park once again seeking to break his maiden. Sent to the post as the heavy 3/5 favorite, Orb again had trouble in the gate and raced at the rear of the field for most of the event, ultimately finishing fourth of five and over 22 lengths behind the winner, Tizracer.
After taking a few weeks to recharge the batteries, Orb returned for his third attempt at his first victory on Nov. 10 at Aqueduct and, again, he came up short, finishing fourth of ten at the Big A (Vyjack, a fellow starter in the Kentucky Derby, won the race in his first start). The race would be the last time Orb would lose at this point in his career.
Unlike his defeat at Belmont two months prior, Orb finally appeared to put his gate antics behind him and Shug apparently began to feel confident that this Malibu Moon colt was getting close to breaking through with his first victory. Just two weeks following his third straight defeat, McGaughey wheeled Orb back to the track in a one-mile event at Aqueduct against a field that included eventual Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary and Peter Pan Stakes winner Freedom Child. Orb finally put his late rallying style to full effect, running down pacesetter Freedom Child in the final furlong to secure the first victory of his career.
Sometimes, all it takes is a victory to finally put a horse into top form. Horses, by their nature, are pack animals and highly competitive, but not all of them truly understand the game early in their careers. The job of the trainer is multifaceted but centers on two important aspects: conditioning and competition. A strong, fit and fast horse is a formidable rival on the track, but the horse that understands the game is just as intimidating. Looking back at Orb's early races, the race at Aqueduct on Nov. 24 was the point where Orb began to put it all together.
Following his first victory, Orb rolled into 2013 with three straight victories at Gulfstream Park in Florida, including the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Riding a four-race win streak, Orb conquered the Kentucky Derby and is seeking to take that next step towards possible greatness in Saturday's Preakness Stakes. It took a while for Orb to figure things out on the track, as evidenced by his struggles in his first three races, but once he did he transformed into a different colt. A colt with not only an opportunity to end the longest drought in Triple Crown history, but a colt with a chance to provide two historic racing families with one of their greatest accomplishments.
The Cinderella story is always popular with sports fans, whether we're talking about horse racing or any other athletic endeavor. Fans love to see the little guy, the underdog, achieve the impossible or the improbable. Orb is no Cinderella story and his connections are anything but the "little guy" striving to beat the big boys, but that doesn't lessen in any way his appeal and, in some ways, strengthens it.
To those that only follow horse racing on a casual basis, the connections surrounding Orb are just names in the crowd. However, that is certainly not the case. Orb's owners and breeders, Stuart Janney III and Phipps Stable, are important and historic families within the horse racing industry. Janney's parents owned Ruffian, one of the great race mares to ever grace the track. Ruffian was sired by Reviewer, a stallion owned and bred by Ogden Phipps, the brother of Stuart Janney's mother. Ogden Phipps and his family owned many notable runners, including Bold Ruler (sire of Secretariat), Personal Ensign and Easy Goer.
The Janney and Phipps families are, in many ways, a "throw back" to the way thoroughbred breeding used to be in America: breeding to race and to develop the bloodlines. Not content to simply send their foals to the sale ring for instant profit, or to breed for simply the flashy juvenile winner, the long line of classic horses produced from their breeding operations is a result of a careful and purposeful development of their broodmares. The female line for Orb is littered with the names Lady Liberty, Mesabi Maiden, Steel Maiden, Laughter and Shenanigans (the dam of Ruffian) -- all of which are a culmination of a process to influence and shape the horses that run under their colors.
Like many things in our world today, the game of horse racing has changed dramatically over the decades, especially in the breeding shed. The family-owned breeding operations that carefully managed their bloodlines and broodmares gave way to quicker rewards. The popularity of juvenile racing, and the ability for owners to recoup sales fees quickly on the track, caused a shift in the industry of breeding for stamina and development, to speed and precociousness. There might be no greater poster child, er horse, for this shift than the recently deceased Storm Cat, one of the great stallions of the last 50 years.
When people speak of Orb as a throw-back horse in terms of his breeding, it's this shift within the industry which draws the focus. Orb never won a stakes races as a juvenile, he took time to develop, he's conditioned by a trainer that doesn't rush a horse into a race, and his bloodlines point to an animal that would get better as his races got longer. None of those factors will lead to quick riches early in a horse's career, but they just might lead to much greater accolades later.
Whether Orb wins the Preakness and (ultimately) the Triple Crown is still up in the air. The American Triple Crown is one of the more difficult feats to accomplish in sports, requiring both talent and luck. Many great horses have tried and failed since 1978, some much greater than Orb. But even if Orb is ultimately unsuccessful in his quest, his Derby triumph alone was a victory for horse racing days that in the eyes of some are long gone. Thankfully, as Orb displayed two weeks ago in Louisville, horse racing's past is still part of its present.