If you’re a clover plant in northeastern Maryland, be afraid. Be very afraid. Kentucky Derby winner Orb checked into the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center Sunday afternoon and, if Wednesday was any indication, he’s not in town for the views.
He’s here for the grass.
“I get him out here, he does not want to go back to the barn,” said Mike Call, while grazing the 3-year-old colt. “The first day, he looked at all the grass and had this look like ‘Where am I?’ ”
He’s at Fair Hill. The therapy center is a barn/training facility within the grounds of Fair Hill Training Center. There are stalls, shedrows, round pens, turnout paddocks and some state-of-the-art therapeutic options such as a hyperbaric chamber, water treadmill and cold saltwater spa. There are also acres of grass and Orb will get his share. His daily schedule starts with a walk, then a two-hour grazing/wandering session with Call, then some round-pen time, lunch, more grazing, a session in the hyperbaric chamber, more grazing and then dinner.
Like a city kid at summer camp, he appears to have settled in nicely. The training center consists of 300 acres, but is within a nearly 6,000-acre natural resources management area and offers a drastic shift from even the most bucolic of racetracks.
“He’s not quite sure what to make of the deer he sees in the evening, but he’s been great,” said Bruce Jackson, who manages and co-owns the therapy center. “We are happy to have him.”
McGaughey has sent horses to Jackson before, and is looking for a Saratoga start and a fall campaign for Orb. Owned by Stuart Janney III and the Phipps Stable, the son of Malibu Moon has won four races and earned more than $2.4 million this year.
Wednesday, Orb wandered the area around the turnout paddocks on the back part of the therapy center grounds. He sifted through the grass for clover, dug up clumps of dirt, gazed into the distance, rubbed his ear on a fence and snuffed in – and out – deep breaths of air. All around him, horses lazed in round pens, ripped and ran in paddocks, rolled in the sand, tossed Jolly Ball toys. Fair Hill's two tracks were invisible from that spot, and the horses all looked a long way from loading in a gate and running as fast as they could.
If he felt out of place, Orb didn’t show it. Snickers the Jack Russell visited. Fellow resident Stephanoatsee tried to start a staring contest from a round pen. Twelve-year-old steeplechaser Incomplete grunted and groaned while enjoying a roll. Through it all, Orb pretty much just kept eating and wandering. Twenty minutes later, he was loose in a round pen, sipping water from a green bucket, picking at some hay, doing absolutely nothing.
That's the idea. Orb has run six times this year including the five-week/three-start grind of the Triple Crown. Following a short freshening after his late November maiden win, he’s been on the go with a start in January (allowance win), February (Fountain of Youth Stakes win) and March (Florida Derby win). He ran twice in May (the Derby win and a fourth in the Preakness) and once in June (third in the Belmont). After the latter, trainer Shug McGaughey wanted to give the horse a break – a real break – from the racetrack.
"I sent him down there for a couple weeks, just to get him out of the racetrack environment," said McGaughey. "We'll see if he can put some weight back on and just get his mind off running for a little while."
Fair Hill has had its share of classy residents including Derby winners Barbaro and Animal Kingdom, Belmont winner Union Rags and plenty of others since its founding in 1983. Jackson’s therapy center has a considerably shorter history, but has become a choice for horses from owners and trainers not normally stabled on the grounds. Haskell winner Paynter recovered from illness and surgery there. Vyjack was there as a 2-year-old and again leading up to his Derby try this year. Wednesday, employees discussed Paynter’s return to the races Friday at Hollywood Park and nonchalantly watched Orb circle the round pen.
“It’s become the worst-kept secret at Fair Hill,” Call said of Orb’s stay. “He’s had a few visitors, mostly people from here who heard about it. We get some nice horses here. It has to be good for them just to take a deep breath and get away from the track.”
Like Orb, Paynter was a wanderer, Call said.
“We logged a lot of miles together,” he said. “As long as they don’t get too crazy, I’ll let them go wherever they want.”
He does keep two hands on the shank, though.
Jackson said the hyperbaric chamber was the only treatment option on Orb’s agenda. Frequently used as a recovery option after a hard race or campaign, the chamber puts a horse in an oxygen-rich environment to aid in cell repair and recovery.
“It really helps horses get over a hard race, or three hard races like him, a hard campaign or even a hard workout,” Jackson said. “It delivers the oxygen to the body in much higher concentrations than would occur normally. That’s the cells’ fuel, it’s what helps them heal, replicate and repair. I equate it to people. Say you played basketball or something and you overdid it and were kind of stiff and sore. All those micro-tears or whatever from over-exertion are what the chamber will heal.”