The Triple Crown series of 2013 has so far provided racing fans with thrills, chills, highs and lows. When that handsome bay colt Orb came storming down the muddy stretch at Churchill Downs to take the Derby, the racing world was alight with hope and speculation. Two weeks later, Oxbow led the field from gate to wire to spoil Triple Crown glory and prolong that storied drought for yet another year. It almost seems like any other year - that is, until we consider the connections of these three year-old colts.
When Joel Rosario crossed the finish line with Orb in the Janneys' famous red and white silks, I got chills. Watching Orb come home the winner was like stepping into a time machine. The whole day felt like some past racing era.
And why shouldn't it? Orb, after all, is co-owned by members of the Phipps and Janney families. These two have formed a racing dynasty that stretches back decades. They are an operation that left a mark on the majority of the 20th century and, now, into the 21st century as well. The blood of Orb's female family travels from Keene to Whitney to Hancock to Phipps...names that resonate success and power in the world of Thoroughbred racing. This year's Derby winner is the result of many, many years of careful breeding.
It's not only the blood that runs through Orb's veins that makes him a throwback. He is trained by Shug McGaughey, a Hall of Fame conditioner who has trained countless champions since the early '80s. Among his most famous horses was Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer, who crushed Sunday Silence's bid for the Triple Crown in 1989. He also trained many female horses that would go on to form the backbone of important female families. Almost twenty-five years ago, a mare trained by McGaughey named Personal Ensign came splashing home at Churchill Downs to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Maybe that's why I caught a glimpse of the past in the Derby.
If Orb would have had the chance to go for the Triple Crown, he would have been a very popular contender due to the history surrounding him. However, it was not meant to be. His quest for the elusive prize was ended by another horse whose connections play an integral part in racing's past.
Oxbow races under the name of Calumet Farm. Calumet was an operation that flourished in the mid-20th century, boasting eight Derby winners, two of which captured the Triple Crown. After family interests in the farm ceased, it fell into ruin. Investors snatched it up and kept it looking beautiful, but the breeding and racing operations there were merely a thing of the past. In the last couple of years, however, successful businessman Brad Kelley - who previously raced horses with Bluegrass Hall, LLC - took control of the once formidable operation. The old devil's red and blue silks of Calumet were sold to South American interests long ago, but the spirit of the old farm lives on in their blooming racing operation and the five stallions that now stand at stud there. Oxbow was Calumet's first Classic winner since 1968.
The Preakness winner also has a pedigree full of champions. His dam is a full sister to two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner Tiznow; Oxbow is also very closely related to last year's Haskell winner and Vox Populi award recipient Paynter. Who better to train a product of champions than D. Wayne Lukas, who has trained so many champions already? The Hall of Fame trainer hadn't won a Classic race since 2000, but, with Oxbow's win, has now taken the lead in terms of number of Classic wins. Fourteen Classic victories have come his way in his many years of training.
Seeing both Lukas and Calumet win a Triple Crown race for the first time in such a while was throwback enough without the expert hands of veteran rider Gary Stevens guiding Oxbow to victory. Stevens launched a remarkable comeback and was able to land a mount on the up-and-coming three year-old colt. At 50 years, he is now the oldest rider to win the Preakness Stakes. It was his ninth Classic win for Stevens, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997.
So, in Louisville, the Phipps, Janneys and Shug McGaughey held court with the roses and juleps. Two weeks later, in rowdy Baltimore, the old-timers Lukas and Stevens, working for Calumet Farm, reveled in newfound success. Connecting Classic success with those names, in 2013, is more than a little awe-inspiring for me. After all, when so many other names fade into obscurity, those names shine bright. They are old-fashioned and well-versed in the sport of kings. They represent everything we hold dear in the game that we love so much.
The Belmont Stakes is in less than three weeks. In the race called the Test of the Champion, it truly will be a test. Orb and Oxbow will once again lock horns for their storied connections. Besides them, there are several others who can give them a serious challenge. Who will come out on top this time? Will it be another ghost from the past, or a relative newcomer to the sport who brings something fresh to the table?
All there is to say is that this Triple Crown season has brought some very respected names to the table once again. It is a refreshing break from the names that bring negative connotations with them. Let's just hope this age of throwbacks can last just a little longer, so that young racing fans can have the privilege to live through days where these names rule the roost.
~Written by Emily White