LOUISVILLE, Ky. It took decades of patience for Shug McGaughey to finally exhibit some impatience.
Symbolic of the meticulous care and cautious planning for which the 62-year-old trainer is known, McGaughey has assembled a Hall of Fame career, despite minimal participation at the greatest race, the Kentucky Derby.
Immune to Derby Fever, always waiting for a good one, the right one . . . and waiting.
The wait was over on Saturday, as Orb, just McGaughey’s seventh starter from five Derbies, won the 139th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs under a vigorous hand ride through the slop by the hottest jockey in the land, Joel Rosario.
It was an especially gratifying win for McGaughey because Orb is owned by his two long-standing clients, Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney.
Now, the unassuming McGaughey is suddenly itching to get to Pimlico for a shot at the second leg of the Triple Crown in the Preakness in two weeks.
“To tell you the truth, I can’t wait,” he said, his Lexington, Ky., drawl perking up for a moment. “We’re set up better than anybody, and if everything’s right, I can’t wait to get to the Preakness.”
“I remember when Shug was inducted into the Hall of Fame, that he said at the end of his speech, ‘I really would like to win a Kentucky Derby for Stuart and Dinny [Phipps],’ and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a good sign, because we don’t want him laying down after he gets in the Hall of Fame,’ ” Janney said, drawing laughter at the post-race press conference.
Orb, a homebred son of Malibu Moon out of the Unbridled mare Lady Liberty, won the Derby by passing 13 horses in the final half-mile, the last of which was Normandy Invasion, trained by
Mechanicville native Chad Brown.
Normandy Invasion, the first Derby starter for the 34-year-old Brown, took the lead coming off the second turn and held it until he was collared by Orb just outside the sixteenth pole.
Rosario ferociously shook the reins from there, but didn’t use the stick, as Orb rolled to the finish to win by 21⁄2 lengths over 34-1 shot Golden Soul, as Normandy Invasion tired to fourth behind Revolutionary.
“I’m more happy for Shug, you know, than for myself,” Rosario said. “I had a perfect trip. He was really calm, very relaxed and I think Shug did a really good job with him. Sometimes, he can be a little handful, but he was perfect today.”
Orb, the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby winner who has won five straight since breaking his maiden at Aqueduct in November, was the slight favorite on the morning line, at 7-2, and went off as a slight favorite among the betting public, at 5-1.
Among those he beat in the 19-horse field were five from trainer Todd Pletcher, who tied the record he had already shared with D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito for starters in one Derby.
Revolutionary was Pletcher’s best finisher, followed by Charming Kitten (ninth), Overanalyze (11th), early pace-setter Palace Malice (12th) and Verrazano (14th). One of the big buzz horses during the run-up to the Derby, Wood Memorial winner Verrazano lost for the first time in five starts.
Palace Malice, wearing blinkers for the first time, opened the first half-mile in a crackling 45.33 and still led through six furlongs in 1:09.80, tracked by Oxbow, Verrazano and Vyjack.
Jockey Javier Castellano and Normandy Invasion were able to save ground inside early while keeping an eye on Verrazano, ridden by John Velazquez, who chose to ride the undefeated colt over Orb.
When Verrazano moved, Castellano urged Normandy Invasion to respond in kind, and his momentum around the second turn pulled him to a short lead as the field hit the long Churchill stretch.
“I said, ‘That’s my horse, that’s my Derby,’ and then the horse started getting tired at the sixteenth pole,” Castellano said. “He gave me everything he had today.”
“I thought he got a good ground-saving trip on the first turn, I loved my chances down the backside and turning for home I thought I was a winner,” Brown said. “I’ll have to look at it [the timing of Castellano’s move], but I got a beautiful trip, so . . .”
By then, Rosario had angled Orb to the middle of the track.
He came on like a freight train, rolling through mud created by a daylong rain that mercifully gave the crowd of 151,616 a break about 45 minutes before the Derby post time.
“He had a great workout here on Monday, and he was terrific in the paddock today and post parade and going to the gate, and so when they swung the latch, I thought to myself, ‘Just enjoy the race,’ ” McGaughey said. “I knew when we left the quarter pole we were going to have a big chance.”
Pletcher was pleased with the way Revolutionary ran in the face of some traffic delays, and that Palace Malice simply went too fast early to be able to sustain it.
The quick pace also compromised the trip of Verrazano, he said, and that the colt was “the one, of all our horses, who was affected most by the [off] racetrack. He just couldn’t handle it.”
McGaughey had not saddled a Derby starter since Saarland’s 10th-place finish 11 years ago, and by far his best shot to win it had been with the Phipps Stable’s Easy Goer in 1989, when he was second to Sunday Silence.
It hasn’t been for lack of Derby-caliber horses, of course, but McGaughey and his owners refuse to force the issue just to be in the race.
A reporter asked McGaughey to describe his painstakingly patient training philosophy, and Ogden “Dinny” Phipps cut in: “Can I answer that instead of Shug? He does it the right way.”
Asked to define “the right way,” Phipps said, “Take your time. Let the horse bring you to the race.”
“I’m not a vacation guy,” McGaughey said. “I like to be at the barn, I like to watch the horses train, and if I feel like they’re not doing things exactly the way I want them to do, then I basically don’t run them.”
On Saturday, Orb did exactly what he needed to do to earn a chance to run again. Soon.