I was not a fan of Orb, the race horse.
On the first Saturday in May, when the bay son of Malibu Moon came barreling down the stretch to catch Golden Soul and Revolutionary — two horses I did like — and win the 2013 Kentucky Derby, my opinion cost me.
Yet, just a few weeks later, after racing fans and pundits alike had anointed Orb “the chosen one”— the three-year-old superstar destined to break the Triple Crown drought and “save” racing (sometimes I think racing has been saved more than “sugar bear” from that old Elton John song) — I was vindicated.
Orb finished a non-threatening fourth in the Preakness Stakes and followed that up with a distant third in the Belmont Stakes. After a brief freshening, he returned with an encouraging third-place showing behind eventual Breeders’ Cup Classic runner-up Will Take Charge in the Travers and, then, got crushed by 22 ¼ lengths in Jockey Club Gold Cup against older foes.
It was shortly after the Gold Cup debacle that owners Stuart Janney and Phipps Stable decided to call it a career for Orb. As usual, it was economics — Adam Smith’s detestable “invisible hand” — that played the largest part in the decision.
“From an economic point of view, the risk/reward is not what you’d like,” Janney told turf writer Joe Clancy. “I was pretty optimistic that he would have had a really good four-year-old year, but at the end of the day it was going to be tough to bring him back. If everything went right, we were looking at a 10-percent upside if he had a good year and a 40-percent downside if he didn’t.”
“You might as well take advantage of the value that’s out there at the time,” echoed Claude “Shug” McGaughey, Orb’s trainer. “If something were to happen next year, and he got hurt or didn’t have a good year, then we didn’t make the right decision for him or for anybody.”
I mean, look, I get it: There is value in winning America’s greatest horse race, the Kentucky Derby. And that value extends beyond the purse or the prestige of the race. But given that racing is a business and that retiring Orb was, by the owner’s own admission, a business decision, I’ve got to question the “business” assumption that winning the Kentucky Derby makes one… well, uh, a better lover.
Frankly, when I factor in the way in which he won the Derby — reserved early in a race that featured a torrid pace — I become almost convinced that Orb is going to be a dud at stud.
However, before I present my case, I thought I would consult with some experts in the field. Although I’m sure many assume just by looking at my driver's license picture that I am “in the know” when it comes to the mating habits of horses, the truth is I know very little about the subject.
Laurie Ross, on the other hand, knows her studs… although she would probably prefer that I express my confidence in her abilities as a bloodlines expert some other way. According to Ross, “Orb has the pedigree to do extremely well at stud.”
“His female family is pure class,” she wrote me. “His dam was an allowance-class winner; second dam was a stakes winner; and his third through fifth dams are blue hens.
“Orb likely carries the X-Factor gene through his dam,” Ross continued. “If so, he will pass it along to his fillies, who could become amazing runners. His offspring will be mid- to late-season two-year-olds (July onwards) and most will prefer going a mile and farther. He has the pedigree to sire a classic winner.”
Stop. You had me at X-Factor, Laurie. (Does this mean that Simon Cowell might be able to “save” racing as well?)
Ryan Patterson of GradedStakes.com agrees with Ross — but not because of Orb’s X-Factor. Instead, Patterson is impressed by Orb’s package (again, Ryan would probably prefer different wording).
“[Orb] is what everyone should be looking for in a stallion,” he notes. “Precocious, athletic, well bodied, well-bred and a Grade 1 classic winner on the track … Orb is the complete package.”
Sid Fernando, former bloodstock editor of The Daily Racing Form, had this to say: “It's the only Phipps Derby winner, and Phipps-bred sires are terrific prospects. So many have done well, including many lesser-raced than Orb. Claiborne is hot right now with War Front, and that helps to draw mares. Plus, Orb is by the AP-line, and Claiborne lost their good son of AP, Pulpit.”
OK, now here’s why I think that these fine folks — who have probably forgotten more about pedigree research than I know — are wrong about Orb.
He doesn’t have any speed.
And past Derby winners who lacked early foot simply haven’t fared that well in the breeding shed. The chart below lists the Derby winners with highest (slowest) early speed rations in modern (post-1920’s) Kentucky Derby history:
(Click on image to enlarge)
While the Sire Production Index (SPI), which relates the earnings of a sire’s progeny to the national average, is slightly higher than normal (1.00), the adjusted SPI, which factors in the quality of the dam, is lower than normal.
Of course, I understand that these numbers are difficult to gauge in a vacuum, so I’ve also produced stats on Derby winners that recorded the lowest (fastest) ESRs since 1930. This list is headed by a horse that many consider to be one of the most influential sires of the past 20-40 years — the late, great Seattle Slew:
(Click on image to enlarge)
* Won the Triple Crown.
Notice that the “early speed” Derby winners were better sires in nearly every category — more crops, more foals, more foals and starters to win, more lifetime starts, more lifetime wins and a higher SPI and adjusted SPI.
Ironically (given that we’re told breeders focus on speed rather than stamina these days), 12 of the 13 horses on the latter list raced prior to 2000, whereas five (of 14) on the former list met that criterion.
What do you think?