- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It's always tougher on a native son.
Grow up in the heart of horse country the way Shug McGaughey did, and there's only one race that ever really matters. McGaughey won big stakes all over the place for the better part of three decades, enough to fashion a Hall of Fame career in the meantime.
But all that success meant only so much without the Kentucky Derby.
"I may not have let anybody know about that but inside, inside that thought was always there," McGaughey said Saturday.
Moments earlier, a colt named Orb kicked up the spray with a stretch run through the slop and erased that worry forever. For the longest time, though, the big bay didn't seem to have a chance. Under jockey Joel Rosario, Orb settled way back in the pack early and seemed content to stay there. In an odd way, his patience was a reflection of everything McGaughey is about.
The trainer brought his first challenger to Churchill Downs in 1984, nearly won it with Easy Goer on a similarly slippery strip five years after that — losing to Sunday Silence and Charlie Whittingham — and then practically disappeared from the scene. For all the good mounts McGaughey saddled in-between, he was too respectful of the race and too good a horseman to show up without a real contender.
He came back exactly once after 1989, with Saarland in 2002, and finished 10th. Empty as it made him feel, McGaughey figured it was less painful to be somewhere else on the first Saturday than walk back to the Churchill barns with just another loser. But as the rain fell steadily on those same barns throughout the morning and much of the afternoon, McGaughey took it as an omen.
"I said, 'A day like today might have cost me one Kentucky Derby. Maybe it will turn around and help us today," he recalled.
The pause that followed almost made it seem like McGaughey was wrestling with his good fortune, like the pragmatist in him wasn't ever going to let go.
"This whole trip has been something that's different for me," he resumed. "I don't know, the last five or six weeks has been as exciting a five or six weeks as I've ever had. And to come here the last 12 days and experience what we did, from the fans to the people that have watched him thrive, and then come over today and see the horse run the race he did, well, it's something I can't put into words."
Someone asked McGaughey whether he was screaming when Orb hit the finish line.
"I'm not a screamer," he replied.
"Even after this?" came a follow-up.
"Well," McGaughey replied, "when I wake up in the morning, I might scream."
If anything, that would have been most appropriate for the first 90 seconds of the race, as Orb idled in 16th place, apparently much calmer than his jockey.
"I was really far back," Rosario acknowledged afterward. "I said hopefully he can go faster than that."
"I was saying maybe I was too far back," the jockey added, "but it was so easy."
The colt's move around the final turn — when he picked off 11 horses and put himself in the race — said plenty about his trainer, too. McGaughey has been good at picking his spots, at least everywhere but in the Derby. He's second among active trainers in Breeders' Cup wins and 10th among trainers on the career earnings list, having just passed Whittingham.
And just like Orb rolling down the stretch Saturday, once McGaughey gets going, he can be tough to stop.
"I've seen some things that make me think there is more there," the trainer replied when the inevitable question about his colt's chances at the Triple Crown popped up.
McGaughey made the case by listing all the things Orb had to overcome to win the Florida Derby, the most impressive being how patient the colt was before he put down the hammer.
"Then to see what I saw today was just ... was something different. I think," McGaughey paused again, "I think we've got our hands on a pretty special horse."
Orb made winners of two of the sport's most prestigious clans, the Phipps and the Janneys. Neither are Kentucky natives — both made their money long ago on Wall Street — but they never gave up on McGaughey, mostly because they liked the way he approached the sport.
And so, when someone asked McGaughey if there was a right way to run a stable, Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps interjected, "Can I answer that instead of Shug? He does it the right way."
Asked to explain the "right way," Phipps didn't hesitate.
"Take your time," he said. "Let the horse bring you to the race."
It couldn't have been tougher for McGaughey to do it that way, but for once, it didn't matter. The right way is the only way he knows.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press, Write to him at jlitke(at)ap,org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.