The two colts were born about a month apart at Claiborne Farm, where as weanlings and yearlings, they learned how to run in the same manicured, 30-acre field. Twenty-three months after they last frolicked together in Paris, Ky., Departing will challenge Kentucky Derby winner Orb on Saturday in the Preakness.
Claiborne has been churning out top-class bloodstock since 1910, with Orb the 10th Derby winner bred and raised there. Its motto is "Doing the Usual Unusually Well," and farm manager Bradley Purcell considers this reunion extraordinary.
"It's pretty exciting and special to have two of your horses in such a big race," Purcell told Newsday. NBC undoubtedly will play it up, but don't expect an emotional reconnection at Pimlico. If they pass each other, they won't be high-hoofing or trash-neighing.
Some animal lovers might like to believe Departing and Orb will recall each other, but Purcells said: "I don't think so. They've been apart for almost two years." Even if you showed each one the other's pedigree and past performances, it probably wouldn't jog their memories.
Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps and his cousin Stuart Janney III bred and own Orb, and Claiborne has been raising their family's horses since the 1930s. There's even a deja vu quality to Orb vs. Departing. In 1985, Forty Niner, owned by Claiborne, and Seeking the Gold, property of Dinny's father, Ogden Phipps, were foaled and nurtured together at Claiborne. Forty Niner beat Seeking the Gold in the 1988 Haskell by a nose, and everybody stayed friends.
Ogden Phipps was close to Bull Hancock and his younger son, Seth Hancock, who has run Claiborne since Bull died in 1972. Claiborne and longtime client Adele Dilschneider bred and own Departing, trained by Al Stall, whose New Orleans-based clan also goes way back with Claiborne.
"When I was a kid," Stall said, "my grandfather and father knew not to follow empty wagons, so they tried to breed their mares to Claiborne's stallions. There's always been that connection, and we're all kind of tied in."
Claiborne was thrilled when Orb dominated the Derby for trainer Shug McGaughey, and so was Stall.
"From an emotional standpoint, I love the way it turned out," Stall said. "I know the Phippses and I've known Shug for a long time, so I was happy all those people got their just deserts."
Unlike Orb, Departing can never transmit his DNA, and it's his own fault.
"As babies, they were both very good individuals, easy to handle," Purcell said. "Orb always was very well mannered, but near the end of his yearling year, Departing could get a little rough. He was a bad boy when they were trying to break him in South Carolina, and Seth gave permission to geld him."
On the positive side, the cruelest cut of all helped Departing focus on racing. He's 4-for-5, with his loss a rough-trip third in the Louisiana Derby behind Revolutionary and Mylute, third and fifth, respectively, in Louisville. Departing comes off a 3 1/4-length romp in the Illinois Derby. He has tactical speed, a strong stretch punch and could be Orb's toughest rival.
"He can handle whatever pace is thrown at him, fast or slow," Stall said. "The Louisiana Derby was only his fourth start, and we felt he lacked a little seasoning. In the last 60 days, I've seen a lot of change in him; just a typical 3-year-old going in the right direction. I think he's on an upswing."
In this most civil of civil wars, McGaughey praised Departing. "He's a very worthy participant in the Preakness," he said, "and they've got every right to be there. I hope we both have good racing luck."
As much as Hancock would love to boast of raising a Triple Crown winner, he still gave the go-ahead to try to derail Orb. "He said we'll just tee it up," Stall said. "We're hoping we have a good trip and we're wishing them the best."
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