For centuries, Thoroughbred racing has been known as the sport of kings, but it is surely one of the great ironies that its crown jewel, the Kentucky Derby, has eluded one of American racing's last remaining royal families for nearly nine decades.
Stuart Janney III and his cousin, Ogden Mills `Dinny' Phipps, bred and own Florida Derby winner Orb, who will be among the top choices in the May 4 Kentucky Derby. While they are not royalty in the monarchial sense, both are legacies of an earlier era when persons or families of immense wealth were the dominant players in both breeding and racing.
Long after many of these private stables ceased to exist due to death or disinterest, multiple generations of the Janney and Phipps families have maintained a presence in the sport and continue to succeed at its highest levels.
Janney, 64, and Phipps, 72, are the grandsons of Gladys Livingston Phipps, who formed Wheatley Stable in the 1920s. Two children followed her into the sport: son Ogden, Dinny's father, began his own stable in the 1930s, while daughter Barbara and husband Stuart Janney Jr. bred and raced under the moniker Locust Hill Farm.
Wheatley's best opportunity to win the Kentucky Derby was in 1957, when it started 6-5 favorite Bold Ruler. Although fourth against what many consider the greatest Derby field of all time, Bold Ruler rebounded to win the Preakness and later became one of the most influential stallions of the 20th century. His most noted offspring was 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat.
Ogden Phipps was unlucky not to win the Kentucky Derby with two Hall of Fame colts. Buckpasser missed the 1966 Derby after developing a quarter crack, while Easy Goer was on the losing side of one of racing's great rivalries, against Sunday Silence, in 1989. Phipps came closest to winning the Derby in 1965 when Dapper Dan, a longshot who never won a stakes, missed by a neck to Lucky Debonair.
Locust Hill Farm, best known for racing the brilliant but ill-fated filly Ruffian in the mid-1970s, had just one Derby starter. Private Terms entered the 1988 Run for the Roses undefeated and started as the slight 3-1 favorite, but was never a factor in a ninth-place effort.
"Derby Fever" is a colloquial term used to describe what horsemen get when they see a three-year-old of theirs show the slightest hint of being good enough to make the Kentucky Derby. The vast majority of these dreams prove unrealistic, but one could never accuse the Janney and Phipps families of ever succumbing to the dreaded fever. Since 1928, they have started a grand total of 13 horses in just 10 editions of the Kentucky Derby.
"I have never been frustrated by not having Derby starters," said Janney, whose professional career has included stints as an attorney, U.S. Senate aide, State Department official and numerous corporate directorships. "It is not a goal what I'm trying to do, and for most of the good horses I have had it would not have been in their best interest to run.
"I couldn't be happier with the success I have had doing it that way and Orb is running because, physically and mentally, it appears to be the best plan to allow him to be the best he can be."
Janney describes Orb's progression into a top Kentucky Derby contender as "remarkable." A solid third in his debut at Saratoga last August, Orb looked nowhere near a potential Derby candidate in his next two starts, finishing fourth both times while losing by margins of 22 1/2 lengths and 5 1/2 lengths. The son of Malibu Moon finally turned things around in his juvenile finale, winning by two lengths over a mile at Aqueduct.
That success has carried over into this year as Orb won three straight over the winter, beginning with a one-length allowance score in his first race around two turns. Orb then captured Gulfstream Park's two major Derby preps, the Fountain of Youth by a half-length and the Florida Derby by 2 1/4 lengths. In two of those victories, Orb courageously rallied to win from behind a moderate-to-slow pace.
Janney, who succeeded Dinny Phipps as Chairman of the Board of Directors at Bessemer Trust in the 1990s, described how a "very special person" in his life was the instigator of the breeding and racing partnership he now enjoys with his cousin.
"Uncle Ogden suggested this partnership to me after my parents died, whereby he bought a half-interest in several fillies and mares with the proviso that (Shug McGaughey) train the offspring," Janney revealed. "It's worked well for a long time and been a lot of fun. Dinny and his family stepped into his father's place (after Ogden Phipps' death in 2002) and the fun and success has continued.
"I really like the fact that we are sharing something that our predecessors created. I think my parents, grandmother and Uncle Ogden would be very pleased because what Dinny and I are doing is so consistent with what they did and this bloodline affirms how well they did it."
Janney is quick to give much credit to Shug McGaughey, whose near three-decade stint as the Phipps family's trainer has been exceeded only by legendary Hall of Fame horseman `Sunny Jim' Fitzsimmons.
"Shug has meant the world to my racing experience and success," Janney said. "I feel lucky to have someone with his talent that is completely on the same page in what we want to accomplish and how we might do it.
"Dinny, Shug and I have the same goal, I think, which is to give a horse the best chance to be the best they can be."
McGaughey, who himself earned a berth in the Hall of Fame in 2004, has trained numerous champions for the Phipps family, and has saddled their last four Kentucky Derby starters but none since 2002. Janney is well aware of how much a Derby victory would mean to the 62-year-old native of Lexington, Kentucky.
"I know Shug feels some added pressure because it's the Derby, it's where he's from and he hasn't won it," Janney said. "He won't and doesn't feel any pressure from Dinny or me."