If the horse racing world needed a little more evidence heading into Preakness week that the erstwhile "Sport of Kings" has turned a corner in Maryland, consider this scene on a misty Friday morning at the idyllic Fair Hill Training Center outside Elkton.
Stuart Janney III, who was sitting pretty with Kentucky Derby winner Orb at this time last year, is walking the grounds with his wife, Lynn, and Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, inspecting the barn that Janney and cousin Ogden Mills Phipps purchased last August and made into a seasonal hub of their racing operation just three weeks ago.
Yes, that Stuart Janney, the descendent of racing royalty who once tried to help fix Maryland racing when it seemed to be on a stretch run to ruin.
"The so-called Janney Commission," he says with a wry smile, then concedes that the 1990s study group charged with saving an industry so vital to the Maryland economy only made him less hopeful that it could be saved.
"I certainly was frustrated," he said. "I was frustrated not so much that they didn't adopt much of what we said, because we might have been right and we might have been wrong, but they really didn't do anything, and that to me was ridiculous because it was quite clear how bad the situation was, and it kept getting worse."
So, Janney, who lives in Butler in Baltimore County, moved on with his life, content that the far-flung family racing operation was better off elsewhere — until last year's Triple Crown run conspired to reunite his lifelong passion with his home state.
If it was Phipps, Janney and McGaughey who led Orb to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs, it was Orb who would lead them to Fair Hill.
Finding a home at Fair Hill
In the aftermath of a grueling Triple Crown race schedule that saw Orb finish fourth in the Preakness and third in the Belmont Stakes, McGaughey decided that the horse needed some peace and quiet. He chose the Fair Hill training facility, which lies in the middle of the 5,600-acre Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area near the Maryland-Delaware border, on the recommendation of several fellow trainers. And he fell in love with the facility.
It wasn't long before he was pitching the idea of buying a barn there to Janney, who had to convince Phipps and then pay top dollar in what was a seller's market, but both Janney and McGaughey said last week that the decision to relocate their spring operation makes perfect sense for a number of reasons.
The improving state of Maryland racing is one of them.
"I think it is," Janney said. "It's better quality racing. If you think about it. What happens when racing sort of spirals downward, you don't have the same purse structure, so that's not attractive. Because you don't have as good a purse structure, you don't have the same quality of horses on the grounds, so the racing secretary can't write great races. So, if you do have a good horse, you don't get the opportunity to run it because the races won't fill for that kind of horse. And then, pretty soon, the jockeys all say 'Well, I can do better somewhere else,' and the jockey colony goes down. It all feeds on itself."
The recent infusion of additional purse money from Maryland's new casinos has improved that structure and stemmed the sport's decline, creating cautious optimism that a new day has dawned for the state's racing industry.
"What's good about the current situation is that it may spiral upward, where there are going to be more races that suit better horses," Janney said. "There will be strengthening in the jockey colony, and there will be, hopefully, more interest. And if Stronach [Group, the Canada-based owner of the Maryland Jockey Club] is going to make some physical improvements to the facilities, that's going to be good, so I think it can work, yes."
A different feeling this year
McGaughey, who has trained horses for Phipps and Janney since the 1980s, agrees that the conditions are right for a greater presence here.
"Very much so," he said. "I think they've got their purses where they're fairly competitive. They've got a good stakes program. The one thing they've got to do is, they need more summer dates. It's going to close in three weeks or something. … But I do like what's going there, that way, with their structure, their racing structure."
It would be overly simplistic to say their new presence in Maryland was born of the euphoria that came with last year's Kentucky Derby victory, but there certainly is a connection. Janney, Phipps and McGaughey spent two weeks at the center of the racing universe after Orb gave them their first Derby winner, and it was an experience that evokes some nostalgia in a Triple Crown season they are watching from afar.
"Last year, from the first of January on, was a hugely exciting time for me," said McGaughey, who has saddled hundreds of stakes winners during his 35-year training career. "It was just really, really, really exciting. We got to Kentucky and got to go through that. The reaction at the Kentucky Derby and the reaction we were getting was really a great fulfillment for me. I enjoyed every minute of it.
"Somebody was asking me the other day, 'How were you feeling Friday of last year?' I was so excited Friday of last year, I didn't think of anything else. Not only had we won the Derby, but we came out of it fine and were able to go ahead. And then this past weekend was a lonesome weekend for me."