05/03/2013 1:00PM

Kentucky Derby: Phipps family aims for first win with Orb

Barbara D. Livingston
Dinny Phipps, 72, shown at Saratoga in 2012, and his family have been leading Thoroughbred owners for more than 80 years but have yet to win a Kentucky Derby.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Phipps family has enjoyed so much success in Thoroughbred racing that it wouldn’t be right to lament the ones who got away.

Yes, Gladys Mills Phipps – the grandmother of Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps – owned Seabiscuit before he became a cult hero. And yes, there was that infamous coin flip that went the wrong way, leaving the Phipps family with a filly named The Bride and Penny Chenery with the beast who became Secretariat.

But in the 80-plus years that the Phipps family has been in Thoroughbred racing, there have been numerous accomplishments. Ogden Phipps, who died in 2002, bred nine champions, including Buckpasser, Easy Goer, Personal Ensign, and Heavenly Prize. His son, Dinny, has owned and bred five champions, including Rhythm and Inside Information.

If there is something missing from the family’s résumé, however, it is a Kentucky Derby win. On Saturday, the Phipps family will have its best chance to correct that flaw when Orb heads the 20-horse field expected to run in the 139th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

“I would love to win the Derby; I would love to win lots of races,” said Dinny Phipps, who owns Orb in partnership with his cousin Stuart Janney III. “The Derby is missing.”

[2013 KENTUCKY DERBY: Get PPs, contender profiles, live updates]

Since 1989, when Dinny’s father, Ogden, ran Easy Goer and Dinny himself started Awe Inspiring – the second- and third-place finishers behind Sunday Silence – the Phippses have been largely absent from the sport’s signature event. Cynthia Phipps, Dinny’s sister, ran Saarland in 2002. He finished 10th.

“I don’t believe in Derby Fever. I just don’t believe in running in the Derby unless you have one or two or three of the best shots in the Derby,” Dinny Phipps, 72, said in a recent phone interview. “There are other things you can run in and not force your horse into it. Orb has run himself into the Derby. He deserves to be there.”

Orb enters the Derby riding a four-race winning streak, including wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby this winter at Gulfstream Park. Moreover, the way he has trained over the Churchill Downs surface this week has propelled him to morning-line-favorite status.

“What he’s done this winter has been extraordinary,” said Phipps, who this year made his first visit to Payson Park, a training center some 90 miles north of Gulfstream where Orb was based. “How he’s changed since last fall is amazing to us. He’s bigger, stronger, and he put on more weight. He’s a totally different-looking horse from the time he won the allowance [on Jan. 26] until the time he won the Fountain of Youth, and he’s a different horse after he won the Florida Derby.”

Phipps owns Orb in partnership with Janney, whose family campaigned the champion filly Ruffian. Janney almost left racing when his parents died a year apart in the late 1980s. It was his uncle, Ogden Phipps, who convinced him to stay in by agreeing to be his partner on whichever horses Janney bought or bred. That deal carried over even after Ogden’s death.

“I was on the fence because I wondered if owning a racing stable was an advancement on the professional side of my life,” Janney, chairman of the Bessemer Trust Co., said. “It was kind of a jump ball. When Uncle Ogden proposed that we do it this way, it sort of changed my thinking to ‘Why wouldn’t I do this?’

Janney himself has not run a horse in the Derby, though his parents ran Private Terms, ninth in 1988. In 1998, Janney had the Wood Memorial winner, Coronado’s Quest, a physically gifted colt who neither Janney nor trainer Shug McGaughey felt had the mental capacity to handle the circus-like atmosphere of the Derby.

McGaughey, who has trained for the Phipps family since 1985 and is the trainer of Orb, has adopted the same philosophy that Phipps and Janney have when it comes to the Derby: Don’t go just to go.

“I’ve seen that if you do make a mistake, it could be a brutal mistake,” McGaughey said. “With a limited amount of horses, I really don’t want to make that mistake if I don’t have to, and we don’t have to. I like the idea of letting the horse bring me someplace, and that’s why we’re here today.”

Phipps credits Janney for the breeding that resulted in Orb. The mare, Lady Liberty, a daughter of Unbridled, did not accomplish much on the track for Phipps and Janney, and after her first two foals didn’t perform well, Phipps admitted that if it had been up to him, she wouldn’t be in the family’s broodmare band.

But Janney, with some input from Claiborne Farm’s Seth Hancock, decided to breed Lady Liberty to Malibu Moon, who had stood his first four seasons at stud at Country Life Farm in Maryland before moving to Kentucky.

“Being from Maryland, I was a big fan of Malibu Moon,” Janney said. “From Seth’s perspective, [Malibu Moon] suited Lady Liberty very well, so here we are.”

For Phipps, having talented horses like Orb and Point of Entry, the multiple Grade 1-winning turf horse who runs in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve immediately preceding the Derby, has been therapeutic. Back in September 2010, Phipps was hospitalized with a blood clot in a leg. The clot led to a “terrible infection” that cost Phipps part of his foot.

Phipps said his foot has healed to the point where he can now go the gym five or six days a week and swim three to four days a week.

“My health is good,” Phipps said. “I was a very sick fellow for a couple of years. I can get around, but I can’t walk that far.”

In addition to being a major Thoroughbred owner and breeder, Phipps is chairman of The Jockey Club, which has recently ratcheted up pressure to eliminate medication from the game. Phipps is a big opponent of Lasix and does not start out his horses on the anti-bleeding medication, but he still does allow his horses to race on it if needed.

Orb did not race on Lasix for his first four starts but is 3 for 3 on the medication, including victories in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby.

“We prefer having no horses on Lasix; we’re going to run our 2-year-olds with no Lasix,” Phipps said. “But we got to compete with the rest of the world. We think it’s a performance-enhancing drug. We can’t be at a disadvantage to everybody else.”

For many years, Phipps was a significant member of the New York Racing Association board of trustees. But when Gov. Andrew Cuomo took over the board late last year, Phipps was not one of the five appointed members by the old guard. Janney, however was.

“My time has come,” Phipps said. “I’m fine with what I’m doing. I have a lot to do with The Jockey Club. We tried to be helpful to NYRA and continue to try to be.”

Phipps and Janney will be among the last owners to arrive at Churchill Downs on Saturday. They will leave Lexington, Ky., around 1 p.m. Saturday, getting here shortly after 2.

Both Phipps and Janney believe that what they saw from Orb in the Florida Derby makes him a prime candidate for the Kentucky Derby.

“I’ve raced horses for a long time; I’ve never seen a jockey ask a horse to go on and then try to shut him down at the top of the stretch and then have him go on again,” Phipps said. “I think his turn of foot has got me excited. I think he’s got a really good chance to win.”