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PREAKNESS 2013

As Orb gets set for Preakness, Bel Air's Mike Pons works the crowd

BY ALLAN VOUGHT, avought@theaegis.com

12:06 PM EDT, May 17, 2013

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Mike Pons has had a busy week.

For starters, Pons, who owns Country Life Farm in Bel Air with his older brother, Josh, was responsible for finding tickets for 80 assorted family members, friends and clients to attend Saturday's 138th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore.

It wasn't easy, he said, but he managed to accommodate everyone who wants to be there to see if Orb, the Kentucky Derby champion and son of onetime Country Life stallion Malibu Moon, can take the second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown Series.

"We got everyone a seat," Pons said Thursday morning at Pimlico, where he was on hand to attend the annual pre-race Alibi Breakfast. "We got a box for the five kids [his and Josh's] at the finish line, but the only problem is it's behind an NBC camera, so they'll have to be moving around."

That's not likely to be a concern if Orb can duplicate his Derby win on Saturday, which will put him in line to try to become the first Triple Crown winner in 35 years in the June 9 Belmont Stakes in New York. He's an even money favorite to take the Preakness.

"If Orb gets a clean shot at the wire, he should win," Pons said. "I think the Preakness is a race where the best horse usually wins. It's much more formful than the Derby where you have so many more starters."

Lots of handshakes

As he walked outside the Pimlico stakes barn, Pons was stopped more than a few times by old friends and well-wishers. He and Josh still own 25 percent of Malibu Moon, who stands at their partner B. Wayne Hughes' Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky, but on Thursday Mike Pons was sporting a ball cap in the Country Life blue and orange colors (he and Josh both graduated from the University of Virginia) with the name of their stallion, Cal Nation, who stands at the brothers' Merryland Farm training center in Hydes.

Pons said they have been getting "a bunch" of calls about breeding to Malibu Man, whose advertised stud fee prior to the Derby had been $70,000.

"It's been fun," he said. "It's amazing to see all the stories and comments being posted on our Facebook page. My son was even interviewed on his college's TV station following the Derby."

Pons got a chance to get a little closer look at Orb, who was grazing nearby, than the first time he saw him, on May 4 in Louisville. "He walked by us on the way back to the barn after winning the Derby," he said.

Pons also stopped to chat with Stuart Janney III, who bred and co-owns Orb with the Phipps Stable run by his cousin, Ogden Mills Phipps.

Orb's mother, Lady Liberty, was bred again this year to Orb, as was another of the Phipps-Janney broodmares. It was confirmed on Sunday that Lady Liberty is in foal.

"You've heard the saying that stupidity is doing the same thing over and over," Janney said smiling. "Well, we're doing it and hoping for the same result."

Later in the morning, Pons huddled briefly with Shug McGaughey, Orb's trainer, who wanted to talk about a potential stallion prospect currently running for the Phipps Stable.

McGaughey, who has been pretty laid back all week, told the media Orb "looked very settled to me" following a mile gallop around the track.

"If he runs his race, he'll be difficult to beat," the trainer said.

Eight challengers

Eight 3-year-old colts are entered to challenge Orb in the Preakness, among them Departing, who skipped the Derby, but is drawing a lot of interest as one of the so-called new shooters in Saturday's race.

Departing's trainer, Al Stall Jr., is married to the former Nicole Schaub, who grew up in northern Harford County and graduated from John Carroll in Bel Air in 1992. Nicole Stall formerly worked at Bonita Farm in Darlington and is close to members of the Boniface family which owns the farm.

"Being at the Preakness, with a live horse who could win, that's literally a dream come true," she told The Baltimore Sun last week.

Departing, whose last race was a victory in the Illinois Derby, arrived at Pimlico via plane on Wednesday, his first time in the air. Nicole Stall was at the stakes barn with her husband during training hours Thursday morning, when Departing galloped a mile and a half and left his trainer pretty happy with the result.

"There were a lot of tents out there in the infield to look at and that kept his mind occupied a bit," Al Stall said, noting the gelded son of War Front had been "tough" on his exercise rider the past few days. Departing will break from the fourth position Saturday under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.

Also on the grounds at Pimlico is hall of fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a five-time winner of the Preakness – and eight other Triple Crown races – who has three starters in Saturday's race: Oxbow, Will Take Charge and Titletown Five.

Lukas, who won his first Triple Crown race in 1980 when Codex captured the Preakness, said Wednesday he was disappointed his 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch finished third, even though Thunder Gulch, another horse trained by Lukas, won the race.

"I thought Thunder Gulch had the best chance of any of them to win the Triple Crown," Lukas said. Finishing in between the two Lukas entries that year was Oliver Twist, who was owned by Charlie Oliver of Aberdeen and bred and trained by Bonita Farm's J. William Boniface.

Lukas, who is 77, said he is in Saturday's race to win, but he also admitted Orb will have to come back to the rest of the field off his Derby win, "or we could be seeing some Triple Crown history."

Baltimore Sun Media Group Triple Crown reporter Chris Korman contributed to this article.

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