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."
Janney was was a bit more dispassionate. He has long focused more on the major races later in the season, because of the great strain that the closely packed Triple Crown events can place on an elite thoroughbred. Still, after all that happened last year, it's fair to ask whether he feels a bit left out with the second jewel about to go off just a short drive from his home.
"The answer to that is that we're not going to be there every year," he said. "We're going to be there infrequently. I feel really good about the stable we've got this year and the horses in it, so I think we'll have a lot of success. I don't really feel left out. I think it's just fine. What happened last year was thrilling, and if it wants to happen again at some point, that's great, but it's not something that I count on and need to have happen."
Still suggesting changes
There won't be another "Janney Commission," but that doesn't mean he isn't willing to offer some suggestions that might improve the Triple Crown series and make it easier for horse racing to deliver a Triple Crown winner more often than once every generation.
If Janney had his way, the Derby would take place the first Saturday in May as always, but the Preakness would be moved back to Memorial Day weekend, and the Belmont would be a month after that, which would reflect a more normal running schedule for top 3-year-olds.
"I think it would help training patterns, because trainers now are more comfortable giving horses a bit more time trying to produce what they would hope would be a peak effort," he said. "And I don't think at this point they're comfortable running in the Preakness the way they have been in the past. What you are seeing again this year is that a lot of trainers just skip the Preakness and run the Belmont because they think they get an advantage having the horse rested for that period of time. Certainly, that's [Todd] Pletcher's strategy."
That said, both Janney and McGaughey believe that Derby winner California Chrome has an excellent chance to win the Preakness and earn his shot at the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Whether he can complete the journey, however, might be another story.
"You're always wise to bet against it," Janney said. "I think that California Chrome looks like a good horse. I'm not sure that the overall quality this year is quite what it has been, which happens. And I think he's got a very, very good chance in the Preakness. I think the challenge will come in the Belmont, if he can win the Preakness, because the field will be stronger. I'm not sure a mile-and-a-half is really his distance, and he'll have more miles on his odometer. That's when it really gets challenging."
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