Haskin's Preakness Report: Classic Reunion

When the field goes to the post for the 138th Preakness Stakes (gr. I), don’t be surprised if two of the participants, who could go off as the two top choices, begin gaping at each other, as two childhood playmates might do meeting years later.

With horses at Pimlico sharing the same grazing area, the two could very well cross paths prior to race day, just as they did every day grazing together as babies at Claiborne Farm.

Kentucky Derby winner Orb and one of his main threats in the Preakness, Departing, grew up together in the same paddock, along with seven other colts. For nine months they interacted on a daily basis without a care in the world. Now they are finely tuned athletes about to confront each other in one of racing’s most competitive arenas.

“They were together from Sept,. 2010 until June, 2011,” said Claiborne farm manager Bradley Purcell. “We had nine colts in that paddock and they were two of them. How neat is that? We liked both of them quite a lot. They were both very strong, classy individuals and easy to handle and had very good heads on their shoulders. We couldn’t have asked for anything better out of them. Now, everyone wants to know if they used to race each other and who won? It was great to see Blame grow up go on and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and now the excitement is starting all over again.”

Orb, like all the Phipps--Janney horses, was sent to Niall Brennan’s farm to be broken, while Departing, like all the Claiborne and Adele Dilschneider horses, was sent to Jane Dunn’s Holly Hill Training Center in South Carolina.

Said Purcell, “We just kind of oversaw them to make sure they stayed healthy and strong, and Mother Nature did the rest.”

Did she ever. What is ironic is that one of the horses who could now stand in Orb’s way in his quest for the Triple Crown not only was his old childhood buddy, he comes into the Preakness off an impressive victory in the Illinois Derby, the race that was snubbed by Churchill Downs and prevented from remaining a viable Kentucky Derby prep. With zero qualifying points, Hawthorne was forced to move the race up two weeks and make it a prep for the Preakness.

While Orb continued to exude class and professionalism at Niall Brennan’s and later at the racetrack, Departing began taking after his mother, Leave, who was considered a bad actor and whose two previous foals had to be gelded. It didn’t take long for Departing to start exhibiting those same characteristics and he soon would join the ranks of the gelded.

“I was the one who gelded him,” Dunn recalled. “The mare could be exceedingly difficult and her foals are inclined to be that way. As Dell Hancock would like to say, ‘His mother was coming out in him.’ They have no control over their behavior; it’s the hormones that kick in. You don’t normally see it on the farm. It isn’t until they get to a training center that somebody asks them to start focusing on one thing. When they’re babies they do what they want when they want other than getting led in and out. Nobody on the farm tells you to look down the racetrack and pay attention to yourself, not the horses next to you or the birds or any other distractions. It’s sort of like taking a kid who’s always done what he wanted and putting him in boot camp and telling him what to do.

“He was a late-developing colt, and I don’t believe he’d be the horse he is today if I hadn’t gelded him. Seth Hancock has always been very good whenever I’ve called and said we need to geld a horse. I’ve never had him tell me no. Mentally, it took him a while to come around. I always liked him once he started behaving. He just had attention deficit disorder, worrying about everything other than what he was supposed to be doing. Once I gelded him he was a different horse; very focused and professional. And he’s always been a beautiful moving horse. Even before we gelded him he was very talented, but he could never connect it together for any particularly long sequence. After he was gelded he didn’t have all these other distractions going on in his brain.”

And so the Phipps-Janney-Claiborne connection keeps growing, evoking images of years past when champions such as Buckpasser, Easy Goer, and Ruffian, just to name a few, came off Claiborne Farm to carve their place in the history books.

Will Orb continue on his path to immortality, bringing Shug McGaughey and the Phippses to the threshold of where they thought they would be in 1989 with Easy Goer, or will Orb’s former paddock mate end the dream, just as Claiborne’s dream ended in the 1984 Preakness when their Kentucky Derby winner Swale finished seventh as the 4-5 favorite before winning the Belmont Stakes?

And remember, after Bull Hancock’s death in 1972, it was the three-man advisory committee, which included Ogden Phipps, who played a major role in Seth Hancock taking over Claiborne Farm instead of his older brother Arthur, who was devastated by the committee’s recommendation of Seth. Arthur then built up the neighboring Stone Farm into a major breeding establishment, and it was his colt, Sunday Silence, who upset the Phipps’ Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and later in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to nail down Horse of the Year honors. And it was Easy Goer who thwarted Sunday Silence’s Triple Crown attempt in the Belmont Stakes.

Whatever happens, this is racing at its finest and classiest, filled with drama and compelling storylines. The link between the Phippses and Claiborne Farm has been one of the sport’s most enduring relationships. The great Phipps and Wheatley Stable horses were born at Claiborne, stood at stud at Claiborne, gave birth to future stars at Claiborne, and are buried at Claiborne. You can’t get more enduring than that.

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