Unless you are a farmer or a you deliver morning newspapers, Bel Air's Mike Pons probably woke up earlier than you did on Thursday.
Pons, joined by one of his brothers, a son and a nephew, rose before the sun and was on the road by 4:15 a.m., on his way to Kentucky, where, after an important first stop, the group expected to head for Churchill Downs in Louisville for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby, which will go off shortly before 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
The object of the Pons' trip is the 3-year-old colt Orb, the 7-2 morning line favorite among the field of 20 entered in the world's most famous horse race. Orb has a connection to the Pons family's Country Life Farm, where Orb's father, Malibu Moon, began a stud career that is still in its ascendancy and would be enhanced even more dramatically, should Orb cross the finish line first Saturday.
"It's fabulous to be in the mix," Pons said Wednesday. "Usually, we're just on the sidelines watching. So, it's great to have a strong rooting interest. I've been to a lot of derbies, but this is as close to have a winning shot as we've ever had. Malibu Moon has had babies running in the Triple Crown races before, but Orb has a better shot at it than any of them. For a relatively small operation like Country Life, this is huge. It's sort of like Halley's Comet; you just have to enjoy it while it lasts, because it won't come back around for a long time."
Before making their way to Churchill Downs, the Pons party planned a stop at Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, to see Malibu Moon, who was moved to Kentucky after his stud career took off and the demand for his services increased among owners of well-bred mares that mostly live in the Bluegrass Country. Spendthrift is also where Orb's mother, Lady Liberty, gave birth to the colt in 2010.
"We're going to stop in at Spendthrift on Thursday to see Moon for a little bit," Mike Pons said. "I try to visit him a half dozen times a year. We like to see him. He's definitely still an alpha horse."
Following an undistinguished racing career in which he won a single race, Malibu Moon took up residence at Country Life Farm almost 14 years ago. At the time, the Pons brothers purchased a 50 percent interest in the stallion prospect, hoping to throw a lifeline to their farm's breeding program when their two top stallions were ending their careers and the state's racing economy was withering from competition from neighboring states that had slots gambling to infuse purses and breeding bonuses, when Maryland did not.
Possessing good bloodlines – Malibu Moon is a son of former Horse of the Year AP Indy – and with the indulgent patience of their partner, Public Storage founder B. Wayne Hughes, and some very skillful management by Mike Pons and his older brother, Josh, Malibu Moon's stature as a stallion began to rise dramatically, when his offspring won, often in their first races, and their average earnings placed him among the top stallions nationwide.
In 2003, Hughes recommended sending "Moon" to Kentucky where he would likely have access to better bred mares, not unlike what Darlington-based breeders Allen and Audrey Murray did the previous year when War Emblem, a son of their stallion Our Emblem, won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The Murrays cashed in before the Belmont Stakes (In which War Emblem ran poorly), selling controlling interest in Our Emblem to Kentucky based breeders and using the proceeds to enhance their own farm's breeding and racing programs.
"After a while, he [Malibu Moon] got so good that he had to go to Kentucky," Mike Pons said in an interview during last year's Triple Crown season. "It's like the big leagues down there. Sooner or later, water seeks its level, and Moon is about as good as they come."
As Malibu Moon's reputation as a stallion continued to flourish in Kentucky, Country Life, which retains a 25 percent interest in him, also prospered in a variety of ways. Josh and Mike Pons bought Merryland Farm in Hydes and revived it as a training center. Their business selling ownership shares in some of their own racehorses, many of them sons and daughters of Malibu Moon, took off. They brought in new stallions, one of whom they own in partnership with Rick Porter, owner of 2011 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace. Porter also has a starter in Saturday's Derby, Normandy Invasion.
Although Malibu Moon has sired numerous stakes winners and the 2004 champion 2-year-old Declan's Moon, none of his sons or daughters has won a Triple Crown race. Orb could change that Saturday.
No sure thing
Currently the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's top-ranked three year old. In his most recent race, Orb stormed to victory at the Florida Derby on March 30, the win propelling him to the front of the list of Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Owned by Stuart S. Janney III, of Butler, a respected Maryland horseman, and Phipps Stable, which is run by Janney's first cousin Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps, Orb will race from post 16 on Saturday.
Mike Pons likes Orb's chances.
"As my dad used to say, 'I ain't trading spots with anybody,'" he said. "Orb has a great shot. His mother was sired by Unbridled, who won the [1990 Kentucky] Derby, then won the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park that same year. In a race like the Derby, with a field that big and strong, when all the horses get to the point where they're screaming out for their pedigrees, that's where Orb is going to shine through. He has everything he needs. These horses, they've been bred for 100 years, and when you put them in a world-class trainer's hands, it's magical. If he wins, we'll be doing cartwheels."
There are all sorts of variables that come into play when it comes to winning a classic race like the Kentucky Derby, luck among them.
As Pons noted earlier this week, breeding horses is, in and of itself, an "inexact science" to start with. The odds of getting a horse from the foaling barn to the winner's circle on the first Saturday in May are more than 28,000 to one this year, based on the number of thoroughbreds born in North America during 2010, according to The Jockey Club, the recognized registry organization in the United States.
There's also the vicissitudes of the race itself, one that historically has not been kind to the horse sent off as the favorite at post time.
"It's a track that the horses either love or hate," Pons said of Churchill Downs and the Derby. "A mile and a quarter is a long way to go in an American horse race these days. So, you put 20 great horses out there, and add 100,000 spectators, and a lot of jostling going on at the start. Some horses can't handle it. You need to have a good horse, and be really lucky as well. It's tough to have both on the same day, but, if it were easy, then anyone could win the Derby. That's why it's such an intriguing event. It's even better to watch when you've got a contender in it."
And, that explains why the Pons and family members woke up before dawn on Thursday to make the trek to Kentucky.
"The key to life is having things to look forward to," he said. "You're going to take the girl to the dance, or get the raise at work. And, if you have things to look forward to, and you like your job, you're going to hit the ground running every day."