Thursday was a busy day in Baltimore for Niall and Stephanie Brennan, with horses to put through their final serious rehearsal before they exit their program at one racetrack and a star graduate to see on another.
The star is of course Orb.
He arrived at Brennan’s hugely successful Ocala-based operation as a strong, good-looking yearling and left about nine months later, prepped and ready to join trainer Shug McGaughey. Everyone knows the rest. A year later he won the Kentucky Derby, the first winner of America’s great race for his trainer, owners and breeders, jockey, and for Brennan, too.
“It’s such a special race and to actually be a part of it is something special,” Niall Brennan said after watching Orb go through another calm and relaxed trained session Thursday at Pimlico Race Course in advance of Saturday’s Preakness Stakes. “We’re a small part, but it’s nice to have a peripheral interest. It’s just nice to be around their horses. When horses get this far and do this well, it’s a cred to the program that they’re in. With horses like Orb who have the talent to be this good, they need that nurturing. And certainly Shug has done that.”
Brennan did it, too, during perhaps some of the most important periods in a racehorse’s life. He broke and trained Orb with a group of horses sent to him by the Phipps Stable and Stuart S. Janney III, who co-bred and co-own the Malibu Moon colt. He got them into his program, which features a lengthy list of top-class graduates that include Point of Entry, Afleet Express, Hot Dixie Chick, Thorn Song, Wickedly Perfect and Desert Code in the last five years.
Some of those former stars emerged from his program after being targeted and offered at North America’s top 2-year-olds in training sales. A small group on that same path is set to sell during next week’s Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May 2-year-olds in training sale. It was that group that Brennan went off to see breeze during the final presale under-tack show Thursday at Timonium.
But before he made that short drive back to the Maryland State Fairgrounds, Brennan watched Orb from the gap near the top of the stretch with his wife and McGaughey and his wife, Alison. Brennan liked what he saw. He’s always liked what he saw from Orb, but does admit the background of the colt’s early days at his training center were “probably a bit anticlimactic from a story point of view.”
“I do go through them all and I do recall he was a very good looking yearling,” Brennan said. “He was well grown. He wasn’t back or immature. He was in very good shape. Well raised. They do a great job at Claiborne. He had great bone, good conformation, a solid colt. I’d given him a really good grade, like an A, when I went through and graded them all for my purposes.”
The yearlings and soon-to-be 2-year-olds like Orb, those who come from breed-to-race breeders like the Phipps family and Janney, are put into a different program than those on the juvenile sale track. They get more time, simply because Brennan has that luxury. Some need it, too, since “they don’t look like Quarter Horses and they don’t train like Quarter Horses.”
Others need time to develop, mentally or physically, sometimes both. Brennan first throught Orb might be one that would need some extra time to come around mentally, given his past experience.
“A lot of Malibu Moon colts I’ve had take a little while to come around, mentally,” Brennan said. “In my experience the fillies do mature a little more easily. He’s had some fillies that were very successful. Colts just take a little longer to get their focus, to come around. They’re more playful and can be a bit more disengaged in the early part of their training. You’ve got to get their focus.
“With Orb, I remember many times making the comment, ‘for a Malibu Moon colt he’s very focused and very good.’ Early on he had a lot of class about him. At this time last year he was training very well. He was doing things right in his breezes. Ultimately I didn’t know he was going to be as good as he was. It was was really Shug’s handling of him that allowed him to develop the talent that he had. There’s no doubt about that. There’s a lot of young horses that have talent each year that we see, that maybe don’t get to realize their full potential, but I think that’s part of the process of what happens to them. Where did they go? What happened to them? How were they handled? There’s a lot to that.
“These are young talented athletes but you’re still developing that talent as you go. It’s no different than a football player or a basketball player. Attitude is attitude. If they’ve got the right attitude they develop their potential to the best and I think Orb got that chance. But I can’t say we knew he’d be a Derby winner. That would be an ambitious statement. We weren’t that smart. He was doing things right and I was happy with him this time last year.”