(By Avalyn Hunter)
Calder Race Course is hundreds of miles from the glamour and glitz of Churchill Downs in May. There are no fancy hats, no celebrities, no swarms of journalists and photographers. Nor are the horses at work glamorous new stars looking for classic glory; they range from untried juveniles to tough old veterans trying to find out if aging legs still have another good race in them. But both tracks, disparate as they are, are blessed with a special group of men and women: those who know in their heart of hearts that, whatever the surroundings, it isn't about the money or the fame at the end of the day. And it isn't about building a reputation on a few races for a quick cash-in at the breeding shed or the sale ring. It's all about the horse: finding out what he wants to do and following where he leads.
Shug McGaughey is one of these old-schoolers, a Kentuckian with Thoroughbreds born in the blood. The owners he trains for, the Phipps and Jenney families, think as he does. They don't rush a horse, nor will they run one where they don't think it belongs or wants to be. Following the horse led to the scratch of Point of Entry from the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT) on the undercard of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I); McGaughey didn't feel the rain-slicked turf course would suit the Phipps' grass star and that was that. But in the very next race, the still-improving Orb led his owners and McGaughey right into every American turfman's dream: the Kentucky Derby winner's circle. Never pushed to make a particular race at any stage of his career, the colt is now looking toward the second leg of the Triple Crown with fresh legs and an attitude that says that he enjoys the game as much as his people do.
Fred Brei is another horseman who follows the horse. On the surface, the veteran Florida breeder doesn't seem to have much to do with the people surrounding Orb. A native of Illinois, he does not belong to the elite circles of the Thoroughbred industry in which the Phippses and the Janneys have moved for generations. While he raced on a small scale in the Midwest in the 1970s, he didn't move into the industry full-time until 1997, when he began his breeding operation at Jacks or Better Farm near Ocala. Since then he has been one of the most successful small breeders in Florida, his equine "children" including 2010 champion juvenile filly Awesome Feather and grade I winners Midas Eyes and Jackson Bend.
Jackson Bend was supposed to be standing his first year at Journeyman Stud this season, but a slow recovery from a back injury suffered during an on-track collision with another horse last year at Saratoga prevented his entering service. So back he went to Jacks or Better for rehab. He returned to the track at Calder in March for some light work, mostly as a form of therapy. Or at least that was Brei's plan. The horse, though, seems to have other ideas: he's training strongly, wanting to do more and more. And on May 5, the day after Orb's run to Derby glory, Jackson Bend officially returned to the work tabs, spinning five furlongs in 1:03-2/5.
No one knows yet if Jackson Bend will face the starter again, except perhaps the horse. But Brei is listening, as is trainer Stanley Gold. And they have made it plain that they will follow Jackson Bend wherever he cares to go, whether it's back to the winner's circle or back to the green pastures of retirement. Regardless, they are in good company—and so are Orb and Jackson Bend, two splendid Thoroughbreds who are fortunate enough to have human connections for whom they come first. No horse could ask for more.