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SportsPreakness

Orb and Departing roamed the same field before becoming racehorses

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They likely won't recognize each other Saturday as they go to the gate for the 138th Preakness.

Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner, and Departing, a horse some believe could be the only one capable of ending this year's Triple Crown chase in Baltimore, will be thinking of nothing but running. They will be two of nine horses trying to get to the front.

Before they ever officially became racehorses, they were just two of eight horses in a field on the Kentucky farm where they were born. Shortly after being weaned from their mothers, they were given their own paddock to roam at bucolic Claiborne Farm outside of Lexington, Ky.

More than 25,000 foals were registered with the Jockey Club in 2010. Not even 400 were nominated for the Triple Crown races as 3-year-olds this year.

"Our owners have great mares and breed them to top stallions," said Bradley Purcell, a lifetime resident of the farm who recently became its manager. . "But to have this situation, where two babies were together like that and now running in a Triple Crown race? Not something we usually think can happen."

Starting in September 2010, the horses were led to a 30-acre plot of land at about 1:30 p.m. each day, with nothing to do but run and sleep until the next morning.

"We just put them out there and let them be horses," Purcell said. "It's not much more complicated than that."

Claiborne actually still owns Departing, along with Adele Dilschneider, and will face two of its most prestigious clients, Orb co-owners Stuart Janney III and Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps, on Saturday.

Claiborne has a long history with the Phipps, having stood their top stallion Bold Ruler — known mostly as Secretariat's sire — and Janney currently keeps his mares there. He entrusted the operation once run by his parents at their Maryland farm to Claiborne president Seth Hancock in 1989 when he took over upon his father's death. Hancock is one of Janney's closest confidants, but they've dismissed talk of the rivalry.

"I don't even think he thinks about it," Janney said. "This is what happens when you breed great horses and put them with great trainers."

Yet Janney marvels at the thought that Orb's old running mate would show up here, in his hometown, looking to spoil a shot to go onto the Belmont with a chance for the first Triple Crown since 1978. He visited the young colt who would eventually be called Orb, but never noticed Departing (it's a Claiborne tradition to give horses one-word names).

"It's very unusual to think they'd both make it here, over such a cluttered path," he said.

Neither horse had an especially noteworthy pedigree, at least by Claiborne breeding standards.

Orb's sire, Malibu Moon, had produced top fillies but his sons tended to be unfocused.

"He was like a lot of his half-brothers, goofing off instead of paying any attention," said Niall Brennan, who broke Orb at his Florida farm. "That had been the one worry with Malibu Moon. His fillies were professional, his colts not so much."

His dam, Lady Liberty, had failed to produce a great runner and Janney, a Butler resident, was under pressure from Phipps to sell her.

Departing's sire, War Front, had won four of his 13 starts and was top-three in 10 races, but was an untested sire. His dam ran in only one race.

Purcell remembers both colts showing early promise, however fleeting that usually turns out to be.

"New foals can be hard to look at," he said. "It's all legs and nothing is sorted out. But Orb was Lady Liberty's fourth foal and easily her best. He looked like a good horse right way. Departing wasn't much different."

Orb was born Feb. 24. Departing came on April 1.

Purcell doesn't remember specifics about how the horses may have interacted — the farm has about 150 foals born each year — but said small groups assigned to each field inevitably run together. They did that right through January 1, 2011, when they became yearlings and allowed their owners to begin really planning for their racing futures. They left Kentucky that summer, Departing for South Carolina and Orb to Brennan's farm in Ocala.

Orb showed signs

Orb at first lived up to the reputation established by his father's other sons, seeming nervous or disinterested. He often trained him with another Malibu Moon colt named Heat Press, who is owned by Maryland's Sagamore Farm and scheduled to race on the Preakness undercard. Together, they began to break from troubling habits.

"They just came along a little bit later, like boys do, but you could see that they were hitting on the potential we'd seen in Malibu Moon fillies," Brennan said. "Orb was training well when he left here but it wasn't like I thought he was the Kentucky Derby winner. He had some talent, but that's impossible to measure."

Brennan credits trainer Shug McGaughey for allowing Orb to fully develop. Not that the hall of famer did anything differently with the horse that would eventually give him his first Kentucky Derby win.

"A Malibu Moon out of an Unbridled mare?" McGaughey said. "I wasn't expecting much, just hoping to get him to Saratoga."

McGaughey began working with the colt last summer, trying to decipher him as he does with each new arrival. Orb had trouble in the gate — he's still claustrophobic, his exercise rider said — and didn't even break during his first race. He struggled again in his second race, and McGaughey worked intensely to school him. Still, he didn't necessarily impress; a Malibu Moon colt named Subsonic, who no longer even races, created more buzz around the McGaughey barn.

McGaughey didn't force the jittery horse into growing accustomed to a crowded track. He stashed him at tranquil Payson Park, where Orb thrived.

"That really was the difference," exercise rider Jenn Patterson said. "We knew he was a talented horse but Shug made the right call to let him grow into himself away from it all."

Departing a step behind

Departing, meanwhile, was delivered to trainer Al Stall Jr. in the second batch of 2-year-olds last summer, meaning the gelding was already behind some of his peers.

"Certainly were no glowing reports about him," said the Louisiana native, who races there and in Kentucky and New York. "[He comes from] a female family you can't rush. A lot of late-developing 2- and 3-year olds, so he was automatically on the slow bus."

Departing didn't race until Dec. 22, winning a six-furlong race at Fair Grounds. Even a win in his next start, an allowance on the same track, didn't convince Stall to push for the Kentucky Derby.

Hancock, like Janney and Phipps, has been cautious about running his 3-year-olds in the crowded Derby field because he is afraid the wear prevents them from fulfilling their potential.

So when Departing finished third in the Louisiana Derby — a respectable enough finish to consider pointing toward the Kentucky Derby — Stall opted to pull back and put the colt on a different path. He aimed for the Illinois Derby, a race not granted any points toward Kentucky Derby qualification and therefore re-labled this year as Preakness prep.

Departing's winning run in that race made Laffit Pincay III, an analyst for HRTV, think of Bernardini, who swept into the 2006 Preakness after not running in the Derby and won by more than five lengths.

"I'm not saying the potential is the same," Pincay said. "But if you watch Bernardini in the Withers and Departing in the Illinois Derby, you can see the same sort of theme there.

"We just don't know how good Departing can be. Orb seems to be ahead of everyone and growing at a faster pace, but we don't how much Departing is going to step up after four weeks off."

Stall, whose wife grew up in Darlington and cared for 1983 Preakness winner Deputed Testamony while working at Bonita Farm, has been adamant that Orb is the horse to beat but also seems intrigued by how his fresh horse will react.

"It's just amazing to they'll be together again," he said. "We're just happy we get a shot."

More than 120,000 people are expected to fill Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness to see Departing and Orb and seven others run over the mile and three sixteenths course. Their trainers describe both as having a different race-day personality, though, one removed from outside influences, unaffected by noise or rain, so that even when the crowd roars the horses run like it might be night time in Kentucky and nobody's watching.

chris.korman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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