For Orb's owners, winning is not everything

Moments before Orb won the 139th Kentucky Derby, owner Stuart Janney quietly said a simple pre-race prayer. He says it every time one of his thoroughbreds runs.

“Come home safe.”

The 63-year-old Janney has been around racing his entire life. His prayer is rooted in sorrows past. 

He was a young man when he watched his father’s undefeated filly, Ruffian, break down horrendously in a nationally televised match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure in 1975. Janney ran to the Belmont Park track after she broke a leg. Ruffian was euthanized shortly thereafter.

“It took a while (after Ruffian’s death) to get over a feeling of dread when the gates came open,” Janney said. “Then after a while, you get the memory in a different place, and you’re OK.”

But still, there is the pre-race prayer. The same one he will say Saturday, before Orb attempts to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness.

“I think it’s presumptuous to ask that I win,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s presumptuous to ask that our horses run safely.”

[Also: After Derby win, Orb has the look of a Triple Crown winner]

Janney’s cousin and partner in the thoroughbred breeding and racing business, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, was with Janney at Belmont the day Ruffian broke down. But his darkest day at the racetrack came 31 years later in 2006 at Churchill Downs. 

Pine Island, a talented 3-year-old filly who was brought along in classic Phipps fashion – which is to say, patiently, with no push to perform in the major spring races – dislocated an ankle in the Breeders Cup Distaff. The injuries were severe enough that she was vanned off the track and euthanized shortly thereafter, which devastated Phipps.

“I didn’t go back to the races for close to nine months after that,” he said. “It really affected me.

“I just didn’t really want to go. When I went back, it wasn’t the most enjoyable day, but I felt I needed to go back.”

Phipps paused.

“We take our horses very seriously,” he said.

In the Fifth Avenue skyscraper in New York where Bessemer Trust has its headquarters, Janney and Phipps occupy offices that are 25 feet apart. Their partnership runs deep, extending from family reunions to the racetrack to the boardroom.

Janney is the chairman of the board at Bessemer. He replaced the 72-year-old Phipps in that position at the wealth management firm started more than 100 years ago by Phipps’ great-grandfather, Henry. The cousins come from a line of wealth that dates to America’s dawning as an industrial superpower: Henry Phipps was Andrew Carnegie’s business partner in Carnegie Steel.

As wealthy people were wont to do in those times, the family took an interest in thoroughbred racing. In 1926, they formed Wheatley Stable, and eventually worked in concert with famed Claiborne Farm in Kentucky to breed some of the best racing stock in America. Wheatley sold Seabiscuit at age 3 – before he became an international sensation. It held on to another horse, Bold Ruler, who would win the 1957 Preakness and become progenitor of one of the greatest family trees in American racing history.

Among Bold Ruler’s progeny: Secretariat. A colt that could have worn the Phippses famous black silks with the cherry-red ball atop the jockey cap, were it not for a fateful coin flip.

The Hollywood version of the coin flip that gave Penny Tweedy Secretariat is embellished. The true tale: through an arrangement set up by her father, Tweedy sent her mare, Somethinroyal, to breed with Bold Ruler, and the resulting coin toss would give first choice of offspring to the winner and all others to the loser.

Phipps won the toss and elected to take a filly, in an effort to expand the family breeding operations. How did that horse turn out?

“She couldn’t outrun me,” Phipps responded dryly.

Her name?

“The Bride,” he said. “I remember it well.”

[Also: Orb looks to become first horse in 35 years to win Triple Crown]

He remembers it well because as a result of the flip, Tweedy wound up with Secretariat, merely the greatest horse in American racing history.

The Phipps family soldiered on, doing quite well even without Secretariat. And so did the Janney family in Baltimore, where Stuart Janney Jr. was a champion steeplechase rider and major player in Maryland racing administration.

Dinny and Stuart work together cohesively. Stuart takes the lead on breeding decisions, but not without input from Dinny. That office proximity comes in handy not just for discussing finance, but the thoroughbred business as well.

In the 1980s, they tabbed a promising but young Kentuckian to be the private trainer for their racehorses: Shug McGaughey. He fit with their approach, which called for prudent development of horses instead of rushing them to the track. For a family of New York aristocrats, having horses ready to perform by late summer in the big races at Saratoga – and beyond that at the Breeders Cup in the fall – meant more than hurrying them into the Triple Crown races of the spring.

“Shug is lucky in one respect,” Janney said. “He doesn’t have 28 owners. He has us. So we can have a conversation. We talk pretty much every day, and they’re long conversations.”

The partnership led to many big victories, including nine Breeders Cup wins. But it hadn’t led to much in the way of Triple Crown glory, or even many attempts at those races. When Orb was entered in the Derby, it marked the first time in more than a decade that McGaughey, Janney and Phipps had brought a 3-year-old to Louisville for the first Saturday in May.

That, of course, was a clear indication of how good Orb was – the connections would have skipped the race if they didn’t think they could win it. And when everything went perfectly in the weeks leading up to the Derby, Orb morphed into the rampant buzz horse on the backside at Churchill Downs.

“He started out as a nice horse with some potential,” Phipps said. “He really moved forward after every race. He trained up to the Derby great.”

Then Orb backed it up with a scintillating rally in the slop, charging from 17th to win the roses on a rainy day in Louisville. Phipps and Janney, stoic by nature, smiled in their matching tan raincoats, gray suits, blue shirts and identical ties. They were the picture of understated aristocracy.

Phipps joked afterward that his black silks would have been much easier to see than Janney’s white with red trim, which were stained light brown as Orb splashed through the mud in the home stretch. Janney countered last week, “Nobody’s silks were going to be easy to see that day. I’m not sympathetic.”

The two men did not go crazy at any point after the victory.

That’s not what racing bluebloods do. These are men who have been in the game forever – not outsiders with disposable income who bought into an established horse and caught Derby Fever along the way. They have seen the sport from the inside since their youth. They know the pedigrees, know the history, know the vicissitudes of a game that can lift you into the clouds one minute and sucker punch you the next.

They remember Ruffian. They remember Pine Island. They care about the animals they have bred and sent to the track, far more than the purse money. They have enough of that for several lifetimes.

“We’ve been in this a long time,” Phipps said. “We’ve had great victories and awful defeats.”

They take their horses very seriously.

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