The Preakness means more to Marylanders when there's a Marylander in the race, and this year we have the obvious connection in Orb, the Kentucky Derby winner owned in part by Stuart Janney III, chairman of Bessemer Trust and resident of Butler, in the heart of horse country north of Baltimore.
But the other connection is to Orb's daddy. Let's go over this because there's a good story in it. It involves two Maryland brothers who made a bet in California nearly 14 years ago on a racehorse with a screw in his knee.
Orb's daddy is Malibu Moon. Now 16, Malibu Moon is one of the leading stallions in North America, commanding a $70,000 stud fee and siring about 100 foals a year.
But the Moon started his career as a $3,000 stud in Maryland when he was but a 3-year-old and owned in part by Josh and Mike Pons, operators of Country Life Farm in Harford County. I had a cup of coffee there Monday with Josh Pons.
"Malibu Moon had a rough start in life," Pons told me, recalling the stallion's foal year, 1997. "His mother [Macoumba] stepped on his left hind ankle and broke it. He spent six months in a stall in Kentucky."
As Pons said this, numerous foals were in the Country Life paddocks with their mothers, loving the spring morning. The knobby-kneed children, a month or two old, nuzzled and poked each other while their mares grazed in the thick, wet grass.
Once Malibu Moon recovered from his maternally inflicted injury, his owner, self-storage king and billionaire B. Wayne Hughes, sent him to California trainer Mel Stute. Stute wanted the horse to race as a 2-year-old — and in the spring, no less.
That is kind of unheard of, if not outrageous, Pons explained, because Malibu Moon's sire was the famous A.P. Indy, and "you don't run A.P. Indy foals in the spring of their 2-year-old year!"
Pons pulled a picture of Malibu Moon off the wall in his office. "I mean, look at him," he said. "He was a bear."
Meaning: thick, muscular — to my eye, Secretariat-like. A 2-year-old with A.P. Indy breeding needs to wait longer to race. "Those are such valuable horses," Pons said. "They are bred to be later-maturing. You usually don't race them until the fall of their 2-year-old year. It makes a big difference. They do a lot of growing between the spring and fall."
But, in fact, Malibu Moon did race — at Hollywood Park in the spring of 1999 — and he did well, finishing second, then first in races a month apart. But the horse fractured a bone in his knee. A single screw helped hold the bone together, but Malibu Moon's racing career was finished.
Next question: Could that kind of horse be valuable as a stud? His daddy had sired dozens of stakes winners, and his mama, Macoumba, was the daughter of Mr. Prospector, sire of Triple Crown winners. The blood lines were good. Hughes held onto the horse — he believed in him — but he passed word he was willing to sell an interest in him.
In July 1999, a bloodstock agent heard about this Malibu Moon and told Pons — something Pons likened to "having one of those scouts for the NFL report a great high school prospect." Pons flew to California on the Fourth of July for a discreet visit with Malibu Moon. There was no greeting party. He merely entered the combination to a lock on the paddock.
"I got one look at Malibu Moon and ... " Pons tried to describe the moment. "I mean, he just turns and something just stands out. He flashes brilliance."
So Josh and Mike Pons made a bet on Malibu Moon. They bought a 50 percent interest in the horse and moved him to Country Life. He stood there for four excellent years, but ended up shipping to Kentucky, where Hughes had purchased and renovated Spendthrift Farm.
I asked Pons, who is a champion of Maryland breeding and racing, why Malibu Moon ended up in Kentucky and siring Orb there.
"It's a little like having a theater play that is a hit off-Broadway," he said. "To fully realize its potential, it needs to play in New York and sell tickets for top dollar on Broadway. Kentucky is where the best mares are, the best stallions, the best breeders. It's another world entirely. Mr. Hughes told me and Mike that 25 percent of Moon in Kentucky would be worth more than 50 percent of him ever would be in Maryland."
So the Pons brothers sold half of their interest in the stallion with the screw in his knee.
Having made a wise bet, they retained 25 percent of Malibu Moon, sire of the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner and the favorite to win the Preakness.
"Sort of like a poker game," Josh Pons says. "When you're holding a good hand, you take some chips off the table, but you stay in the game."