Just Rewards - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the June 15, 2013 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)

By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell Breaking the 35-year Triple Crown drought would have been special, no doubt, but the Thoroughbred racing community still got a deeply satisfying series—three classic winners bred, raised, owned, trained, and ridden by an impressive collection of the sport’s most venerable members.

The victories by Orb in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Oxbow in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), and Palace Malice in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) represent more than 440 years of combined experience in racing and breeding.

One hundred and fifty-nine years of hard knocks and patience brought Orb (by Malibu Moon) to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle. Any involvement with Thoroughbreds requires a commitment to the long view, which is certainly the tack taken by owner/breeders and first cousins Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps and Stuart Janney III. Phipps, 72, was raised in the business, having spent every summer of his life at Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (with the exception of World War II) and grew up talking horses with his father, Ogden Phipps, and grandmother Gladys Livingston Mills Phipps. Janney, 64, also had been exposed to racing throughout his life but became a hands-on player in 1988 when he took over his parents’ racing and breeding operation. Trainer Shug McGaughey, 62, started as a groom for Frank Whiteley in 1967 then took out his own trainer’s license 34 years ago. The young gun on this team is jockey Joel Rosario, 28, who entered a Dominican Republic jockey school at age 12 and began riding in the United States in 2001. Rosario is currently the leading North American rider by wins and earnings.

Oxbow’s win in the Preakness rewarded 120 years of experience earned largely by master trainer D. Wayne Lukas, 77, and renaissance rider Gary Stevens, 50. Lukas parlayed 10 years of success running Quarter Horses into a Thoroughbred racing career that has now spanned 35 years. In the Preakness, Lukas broke a tie with “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons to become the leading trainer by number of classic wins with 14. Stevens was 8 when he began working as a groom for his father and trainer, Ron, and by 14 was riding in races. Stevens rode his first mounts for Lukas in 1985. Oxbow was bred by Colts Neck Stables’ Richard Santulli, 69, who has been involved with Thoroughbred racing for 28 years as an owner and a director for the New York Racing Association and Breeders’ Cup. The Awesome Again colt is raced by billionaire Brad Kelley, 57, who has raced as Bluegrass Hall since at least 2009 and now races in the name of Calumet Farm, which he took over ownership and management of in 2012. Oxbow doesn’t get credit for Calumet’s preeminent racing history dating back to 1932, but Kelley certainly deserves all the credit for bringing Calumet’s name and tradition back to prominence.

Palace Malice’s Belmont victory added another 162 years to the cumulative experiences behind the classic winners. Breeder William S. Farish, 74, leads a deep list of veterans associated with the son of Curlin. Farish, who founded Lane’s End Farm in 1979, bought his first racing prospect at the 1963 Keeneland September yearling sale. He raced his first stakes winner, Kaskaskia, in 1967. Lane’s End has gone on to sell seven Belmont Stakes winners through its sale consignments and bred four of them. Cot Campbell, 85, manages the Dogwood Stable partnership that owns Palace Malice. The father of racing partnerships, Campbell has been involved in racing for more than 40 years. His first exposure to racing was through his father, who bought a farm in Tennessee in 1940 and built a training track on it. When Campbell attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1942, he said he was hooked for life. Jockey Mike Smith, 47, has been riding since he was 16. Smith set a North American record with 62 single-season stakes wins in 1993 then broke the record the following year with 68. He got sidelined for more than six months by a broken back in 1998 and relocated to the West Coast where his riding career was reborn. And, finally, trainer Todd Pletcher, 45, is another raised in a racing family. He started walking hots at age 7 and now owns five titles as the nation’s leading trainer. Campbell was among Pletcher’s first clients when he went out on his own in 1995.

These stalwarts behind the classic winners have more than paid their dues in a sport where success can be so frustratingly elusive, and their persistence, dedication, and hard work have been richly rewarded.

But, watch out, because next year they’ll be back to try again. As Lukas said prior to the Derby: “Whenever someone mentions ‘comeback,’ I tell them that I never left.”

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