Bel Air-based horse breeders have reason for Derby fever

If you can sire a horse that wins the Kentucky Derby, or the Preakness, that's the golden ticket.

Just about 11 months ago, shortly after the 2012 Kentucky Derby had concluded, Mike Pons, who along with his brother Josh owns and runs Bel Air's Country Life Farm, explained that in the business of thoroughbred breeding, having the offspring of one of your own horses take first place at a Triple Crown event is what every breeder is hoping for.

That chance does not come along very often.

"Really, that's what you're always hoping for as a breeder," Mike Pons said. "If you can sire a horse that wins the Kentucky Derby, or the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes, that's the golden ticket. Then the phone starts ringing off the hook. Every year I'm hoping we can do it."

With the success of Orb, a 3-year-old colt who ran away from the field to a first-place win at Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, that golden ticket may be in sight for the Ponses and Country Life Farm and their stallion Malibu Moon. So, you might excuse the Pons family if they've caught a touch of Derby fever in the past few days.

It's a long five weeks between last Saturday and the 139th renewal of the Run for the Roses on May 4, a time when anything can happen among the top 3-year-olds gunning for the prize. To this point, however, Orb is certainly among the Derby favorites, and his success can only help the future prospects of his sire.

"This is a really exciting time for us," Mike Pons said. "This is the biggest race won by one of our stallions since Josh and I took over the farm. The Florida Derby is a million-dollar, Grade 1 race. A lot can happen between now and the Kentucky Derby, but we're hoping this is the year it happens."

Rising stallion

Malibu Moon helped turn things around for Country Life Farm when the Ponses purchased him out of California 14 years ago, during a period when their farm's top stallions Allen's Prospect and Carnivalay were at the end of their breeding careers.

Foaled in 2010 from the mating of Malibu Moon and the royally bred mare Lady Liberty, Orb's Florida Derby victory has made him the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's top-ranked 3-year-old, and he has amassed more points in Kentucky Derby prep races than any other horse in the country.

There are a number of top derby prep races yet to run, including the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial, both coming up this Saturday, and the Arkansas Derby a week later. Other contenders may come to the fore, and some will no doubt drop out. There also will be the inevitable injuries and other setbacks in training plans. Following Saturday's win at Gulfstream, however, Orb is well on the way to Louisville and the starting gate at Churchill Downs.

Malibu Moon, who stood at stud in Bel Air from 1999 to 2003, before moving to Kentucky when the Ponses sold half their share of him to Castleton Lyons Farm, has seen his offspring earn more than $50 million in race winnings. Helped largely by Orb's three victories and $866,100 won since the beginning of 2013, Malibu Moon is the leading sire in North American earnings this year.

"Moon," as the Ponses call him, counts as his grand sire the great Seattle Slew, winner of the 1977 Triple Crown. Malibu Moon sired by A.P. Indy, winner of the 1992 Belmont Stakes, and in recent years both have been among the top stallions in the country in terms of money won by their offspring.

"He's a once-in-lifetime kind of horse," Josh Pons said of Malibu Moon in a 2012 interview with The Aegis.

Racing royalty

Orb, who outran second-place finisher Itsmyluckyday to take a 2-3/4-length win at the Florida Derby, is owned by Stuart S. Janney III, a Butler resident, and Phipps Stable, which is run by Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps.

"Stuart Janney and Dinny Phipps are cousins, and Stuart's dad was one of our clients," Mike Pons said. "It's interesting because these folks, like us, have been in this business for a long, long time. Our families have all been doing it for about 100 years, and this is the first time in a long time that we've had a chance to win a Kentucky Derby."

The Phipps and Janney families have long been involved in thoroughbred racing. Janney's late mother and father, Barbara and Stuart S. Janney Jr., bred and owned the famous filly Ruffian, a U.S. Racing Hall of Fame inductee, while the Phipps family's association with the sport goes back to the early 20th Century. Orb's owners' grandmother, Gladys Mills Phipps, established the family's renowned Wheatley Stable, owner of Bold Ruler, who sired Secretariat, and many, many other champion thoroughbreds.

There's some irony, however, because a Phipps horse has never won the Kentucky Derby, and historically the family and its trainers have held some of the better prospects back in their 2-year-old seasons and early in their 3-year-old seasons, bypassing the Derby in favor of latter races. Some of their better Derby starters, including Bold Ruler in 1957, did make the race but didn't win.

In 1988, Private Terms, who was owned by Janney's father, was a co-favorite with Winning Colors, who won the race going wire-to-wire, with Private Terms, finishing ninth. Private Terms was trained by the late Charles Hadry, a Havre de Grace native.

A year later, Easy Goer, owned by Phipps' late father, Ogden Phipps, lost the Derby to Sunday Silence by two and half lengths and then the Preakness by a neck, the latter considered one of the greatest Preakness races of all time. Easy Goer went on to win easily in the Belmont Stakes, depriving Sunday Silence of the Triple Crown. Both Orb and Easy Goer are trained by hall of famer Claude R. "Shug" McGaughey III, who has been training for the Phipps family since 1986.

Royal breeding

On Orb's male side, Malibu Moon is also a descendant of Secretariat, top stallion of the 1990s Mr. Prospector, Native Dancer, Nashua and Swaps, all what are known in the breeding trade as "black type" stallions, horses who won top-graded races.

Orb's dam, Lady Liberty, was sired by Unbridled, who, like Orb, took the 1990 Florida Derby. Unbridled also went on to win the Kentucky Derby that year. Other top horses in Orb's female line include Mr. Prospector, Dr. Fager, Turn-to, Sword Dancer and Bold Ruler

With that type of breeding on both sides of his pedigree, it begs the question: What are Orb's chances at this year's Run for the Roses?

"The Kentucky Derby is a little strange in that you have to be very good, and very lucky on the same day to win it," Mike Pons said.

"It's going to be a full field, with 20-something horses running, and you have to make sure you don't get bottled up at the start," he continued. "At Churchill Downs, you have to be within three or four lengths of the leader at the turn if you want to have a shot at winning. In the Florida Derby, Orb was a little farther back than that, running in fourth or fifth, and he outran everyone at the end. That's a little more difficult to do at the [Kentucky] Derby. The field is always talented, and there's always six or seven horses that could win it. I think if Orb gets out quickly, he can run with anyone in that field."

Pons pointed out that Orb has a nice combination of his forbearers' qualities.

"Physically, he has a profile that reminds you a lot of Malibu Moon, who was fast, and you even see some of Unbridled in him," Pons said. "Unbridled could just run all day long, so when you combine those two, you've got a sprinter who's got some stamina as well, and that's a great mix. If Orb is close and has a good look at the finish coming down the stretch, he can win."

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