05/12/2013 9:00AM

Orb is a testament to patience and planning

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Tom Keyser
Orb’s owners, Dinny Phipps and Stuart Janney III, are congratulated by Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear following their win in the Kentucky Derby on May 4.

There was a moment several years ago when it would have looked smart to sell Lady Liberty.

The mare descended from an illustrious family tree that features such names as Ruffian and Private Terms. But her branch of the family had not produced a major runner since her dam, Mesabi Maiden, won the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes in 1996.

In 2009, Lady Liberty herself looked like an unproductive twig. Boarded at Seth Hancock’s Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., she’d been afforded several chances, with little return. Her first foal won three races, none of them black type; her second was winless; her third died as a yearling; and she failed to conceive on her fourth mating.

Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, who owns Lady Liberty and six other mares in partnership with his cousin, Stuart Janney III, recommended pruning.

“I didn’t think she was going to make it as a great broodmare, and, yes, I suggested he sell her,” Phipps, 72, said recently.

But Janney was reluctant.

“I felt, and really was very much backed up by Seth Hancock, that maybe we hadn’t gotten her to the right stallion, and maybe we needed to give her more of a chance,” said Janney, 64. “She was good-looking, and she’s an Unbridled mare, and it was increasingly obvious that that was a very good thing.”

Janney convinced Phipps to keep Lady Liberty and breed her to A.P. Indy’s son, Malibu Moon. The result, of course, was Orb, whose 2 1/2-length win in the May 4 Kentucky Derby gave the Phipps and Janney families their first Derby victory.

“Now, I think she’s a great broodmare,” Phipps said with a laugh several days after the race. “I started laughing with Stuart after Orb won the Fountain of Youth and said, ‘I don’t want to hear any more of this stuff. I have changed my opinion.’ ”

Phipps’s father, Ogden Phipps, started partnering with Janney 25 years ago, at a time when Janney was considering whether to disperse his parents’ famed Locust Hill Farm bloodstock. The Janneys’ homebreeding program had produced, among others, the excellent broodmare Shenanigans, the dam of Ruffian, Icecapade, and Buckfinder and the second dam of the family’s 1988 Wood Memorial winner and sire, Private Terms.

But when Stuart Janney Jr. and his wife, Barbara, died within a year of each other in the late 1980s, it left their son and Locust Hill at a crossroads. A phone call from his Uncle Ogden helped convince the younger Janney to stay in the sport.

“I was very, very close to Uncle Ogden,” Janney recalled recently. “At some point, he said, ‘Stuart, as you think about this, if there are any fillies or mares or whatever that you might like to have me own half of, I would be glad to do that. My only condition is that they get trained by Shug McGaughey. Otherwise, I’ll just be, in effect, your silent partner.’ I didn’t want him to be a silent partner. The thing I was looking for was the fact that he’d help me and give me advice, and that I’d be in a lot better position to do a reasonable job with it.”

Janney agreed and nominated one weanling filly and one 5-year-old mare as the new partnership’s first horses. The filly was Deputation, who developed into a graded stakes winner and graded producer, and the broodmare was Steel Maiden.

A three-quarters sister to Private Terms, Steel Maiden looked like a promising producer. She was a Shenanigans granddaughter and a two-time stakes winner who had finished second to champion Family Style in the 1986 Black-Eyed Susan. Steel Maiden’s second runner, the Forty Niner colt Pro Prospect, was stakes-placed. Her fifth foal, the Cox’s Ridge daughter Mesabi Maiden, raised Janney’s and Phipps’s expectations when she vindicated her dam’s loss in the Black-Eyed Susan by winning the race in 1996.

But Mesabi Maiden did not live up to her owners’ high hopes in the breeding shed.

“This particular branch of the family kind of did go a little quiet for a while,” Janney acknowledged. “Steel Maiden was a very nice broodmare but maybe not everything you’d hope. Mesabi Maiden was her very best, and when Mesabi went to Claiborne after her racing career, I would have said that she’d be an absolute star. She was beautiful-looking. She had a good race record; the horse she beat in the Black-Eyed Susan was Bernardini’s dam, Cara Rafaela.

“And Mesabi Maiden was everything you’d want in terms of pedigree,” Janney added. “But she had a spotty history as a broodmare. Obviously, producing Lady Liberty makes it all worthwhile. These families have a way of going a little bit quiet for a while and then waking up, and that’s sort of what’s going on here.”

The worrying question for breeders, though, is whether a bloodline’s quiet moment is merely a pause or the petering out of a productive line. Dinny Phipps has carried on his father’s enormously successful homebreeding program – and the partnership with Janney – since Ogden Phipps’s death in 2002. And he’s bred champions in his own right. But he, too, has been caught on the wrong side of the “keep or cull” decision.

In 2006, after mating his A.P. Indy mare Supercharger to Maria’s Mon, Phipps sold her for $160,000 to WinStar Farm. The resulting colt – officially bred by WinStar because it owned the mare when he was born – was Super Saver, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2010.

That could have been the Phipps family’s first Derby winner, salving the wound left from their last attempt in 1989, when Ogden Phipps’s Easy Goer lost to Sunday Silence and Dinny Phipps’s Awe Inspiring finished third.

“It’s just part of the game, and there are only so many you can keep,” Dinny Phipps said of Supercharger. “Her record wasn’t very distinguished. I look at trying to cull mares out of my broodmare band, and I’ve reduced them down to a lot less than I had before, and she didn’t make the cut. She proved me wrong, too.”

By the time Super Saver won his Derby, though they didn’t know it, Phipps and Janney already owned a Derby winner.

Orb was born Feb. 24, 2010, and from the beginning, Janney and Phipps knew the Malibu Moon–Lady Liberty mating had improved their position.

“He was by far her best-looking foal,” Janney said. “We didn’t go, ‘My heavens, he’s our Derby winner,’ but he was a very attractive colt, and he did everything the right way at every stage. We were very pleased. So, we went and bred to Flatter, and that’s about seven-eighths the same family as Malibu Moon, just about as close as you can get. We’ve gotten a terrific colt this year. He couldn’t be more attractive. He’s bright, he’s athletic, and all the rest. Now, we’re back to Malibu Moon, for obvious reasons.”

Malibu Moon, who started his breeding career at the Pons family’s Country Life Farm in Maryland before relocating to Kentucky – he now stands at B. Wayne Hughes’s Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Ky., – has become one of Thoroughbred breeding’s fashionable sires. But fashion isn’t what drives the Janney and Phipps breeding program, which is geared exclusively toward their own racing stable, not the auction ring. They don’t “over-intellectualize” Thoroughbred breeding, as Janney puts it, but their criteria can be exacting.

“I’ve always felt that to put a filly back in the broodmare band, she must either have run well or had an excuse not to run well,” Phipps said. “I’ve put horses in the band that never ran but were beautifully bred and had a physical problem that I didn’t think they’d breed on. But in most cases, I’ve tried to put broodmares back that have black type. I’m not one that looks at fancy charts. I look at what their race record is, what they look like, and what Shug thinks of them. I’m sure all that pedigree analysis works, but I’m not into that.

“I don’t think we have to come out with a 2-year-old that runs five furlongs,” he added. “That’s just not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for a horse that can run a mile and run a mile well. We really don’t try to press what we have. We try to make sure they’re ready to run, and our philosophy is not to breed the six-furlong horse.”

Homebreeders have lately been dominant in the Kentucky Derby – seven of the race’s last 11 winners were raced by the people who bred them – but both the Phipps and Janney families have only started a few in the fabled race, despite breeding their horses with classic stamina in mind.

“Yes, that’s what they’re ultimately supposed to do, but it isn’t always what they want to do in the spring of their 3-year-old year, and it’s certainly not what they’re going to be doing with huge success in the fall of their 2-year-old year,” Janney explained. “There are plenty of my horses that come every year – and same thing with Dinny – where I ask Shug, ‘What do you and [bloodstock adviser] Niall Brennan think?’ And the answer is, ‘I like him, but he’s not going to be early.’ From one point of view, that could be not good at all, but I don’t care. I just want to hear the first part of the sentence, which is that he’s going to be good.

“I’ve come to understand this: When you’re dealing with these pedigrees over a long period of time, it’s a little like painting a picture,” Janney added. “Like an oil, where you get to rub out or scrape off the oil and redo sections of it until you finally get it right. ... You see what doesn’t work, and you can add bits, whether it’s size or speed or whatever it is. You don’t always get it right at first, but you start to get it right over time.

“With this family, we didn’t get it right in the beginning, but we kind of felt like we were getting it right when we saw Orb.”