"Amazing! A day for the ages," was the way Mike Pons put it about an hour after Orb, the son of the onetime Harford County based stallion Malibu Moon, stayed off a blistering early pace and out of trouble on a sloppy track and then blew away the rest of field to capture the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville Saturday.
It was also the first truly classic win by one of the offspring of Malibu Moon, American's top rated stallion who began his stud career at the Pons family's Country Life Farm in Bel Air before moving to Kentucky in the middle of the last decade.
"Oh my gosh. This is just a magical time," Mike Pons, who owns Country Life with his brother, Josh, said over the phone from Churchill Downs following the race. "All day I wanted to take a remote control and hit fast forward, so it would be 6:25, post time, and now I just want to slow everything down. I'll remember this for the rest of my life."
The Derby winner, owned by Marylander Stuart S. Janney III and the Phipps Stable of Janney's first cousin Ogden Mills Phipps, covered the mile and a quarter distance on a slow, sloppy track in 2:02.8, a respectable time under the conditions. It was the first Derby win for the Janney and the rest of the Phipps family, and for their hall of fame trainer Shug McGaughey, as well as for Orb's jockey, the up and coming Joel Rosario.
For the four generations of the Pons family who have worked at their farm off Route 1 and Old Joppa Road since it was founded by Mike and Josh's grandfather Adolphe Pons in 1933, Orb's victory was the second time the son of a Country Life stallion has won of the world's most famous horse race. The 1961 Derby winner Carry Back was sired by the Country Life stallion Saggy. Country Life has a 25 percent interest in Malibu Moon and races several of his other offspring.
Orb, whom Janney says was named for the colt's sire, went off as the betting favorite at $5.40 to 1 and paid $12.80 for the win. Long shot Golden Soul closed fast to finish second, just ahead of Revolutionary, the bettors' second choice, in the show spot. Behind the top three came Normandy Invasion, owned by Rick Porter who also owned 2001 Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, and then Mylute, whose jockey, Maryland favorite Rosie Napravnik, notched the best Derby finish ever for a female rider, beating her own record from two years ago by four places.
It rained steadily for most of the afternoon Saturday, turning the surface of the track into muddy goo and leaving some handicappers wondering if an off track would compromise the chances of Orb, who had never raced over one.
Around 4 p.m., two and a half hours before the Derby post time, Mike Pons texted: "It's raining pretty steadily. Anyone who goes outside gets soaked." The rain stopped about 30 minutes before the start of the race when the horses were being led to the paddock for saddling, but not in time to allow much improvement in the track conditions.
Those who backed Orb needn't have worried. When Palace Malice set obscene early fractions of 45.1 for the first half and 1:09.4 for the three-quarters, Rosario and Orb, who broke from the 16th post, bided their time down the backstretch with only three of the other colts from the field of 19 left behind them. Gradually they began to pick up the tiring horses and then Rosario, who said after the race they got a "perfect trip," put Orb into a determined and steady drive at the top of the stretch, keeping him well out to the middle of the track where the going looked to be fairly sound.
Orb got the lead with about a sixteenth of a mile to go and, at that point, the race was for all intents and purposes over.
"You dream for something like this to happen your whole life, and then it does and you can't believe it," Mike Pons said. "After the race, I had to ask the person sitting next to me if Orb had really won, because I thought maybe I'd imagined it. When they said, 'yes,' then it all came to me. He'd won the Kentucky Derby."
"[Orb's sire] Malibu Moon loved to run in the mud, so the track being wet didn't worry us too much," Pons said. "What we were more concerned about was whether Orb could handle a race as hectic as the Derby. There's a whole lot of jostling going on with a 20-horse field, and there's 100,000 people at the track, so it's very loud. But, we knew he could run with any horse in that field."
"I lost sight of Orb on the backstretch. There was someone else in the field with silks that looked the same, and I got them mixed up for a second. But, when they came around that last turn, I saw him making his move. We knew that if he was sitting back in the pack on the second turn, he would go outside, and the way it happened, it was like John Madden had drawn up a football play and it worked perfectly. Orb sat back and didn't get in trouble and had a pretty smooth race."
"I'm out in the parking lot now, and we're supposed to meet some people and go eat dinner, but I don't really care about that now," Pons added. "I'm so happy I don't want to think about anything else. We're all thrilled. Now, we just have to start thinking about the Preakness."
In case anyone forgot, the middle jewel of the Triple Crown will be run at Pimlico on Saturday, May 17. Assuming Orb comes out of the Derby without any health issues, expect him to be a prohibitive favorite in Baltimore for a decent shot at becoming the first Triple Crown champion in 35 years.