Shug McGaughey can check off just about every major accomplishment in 34 years of training horses.
He’s in the Hall of Fame, he’s won Breeders’ Cup races and in 1989 his horses finished second and third in the Kentucky Derby.
He just hasn’t made it to the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May, mostly because he rarely tries.
Orb could change all that.
The colt whose name means globe could be the post-time Derby favorite Saturday. He made a case for himself with a slick final workout at Churchill Downs on Monday. He drilled a half-mile in 47.80 seconds, getting the wags talking about how powerful he appeared.
”He’s getting over this racetrack very well, which is important,” said McGaughey, who is winless with six starters in the Derby.
The colt who won the Florida Derby impressed Bob Baffert, himself a Hall of Fame trainer and a three-time Derby winner.
”I love the way Orb moves over the ground,” he said. ”He just floats. He looks the part.”
Orb tied undefeated Verrazano atop the Derby points leaderboard that determines the maximum 20-horse field for the race. Orb would be just the second Derby starter for McGaughey since he saddled Easy Goer to a runner-up finish behind Sunday Silence in 1989. His other horse, Awe Inspiring, finished third that year.
”Obviously, I wished he’d won,” McGaughey said. ”Then I wouldn’t have to be worrying about it all the time.”
Sunday Silence went on to win the Preakness before Easy Goer turned the tables in the Belmont, thwarting his rival’s Triple Crown bid.
Being from Lexington, the heart of Kentucky’s horse country, McGaughey figured to be a regular Derby participant. He hasn’t lost his thick Southern drawl despite years of working in New York for clients Stuart Janney and Ogden Mills ”Dinny” Phipps, the first cousins who own Orb.
There’s no Derby fever for these folks, though.
Orb will be the second Derby starter for both Janney and Phipps, whose previous entries were in 1988 and ’89, respectively. Their family wealth allows them to race the horses they breed; unlike the majority of current owners who are involved through partnerships that split up the exorbitant costs of the sport.
The cousins’ grandfather, Henry Phipps, founded wealth management firm Bessemer Trust in 1907. Janney serves as chairman, while Dinny Phipps is its director. He also chairs The Jockey Club, the sport’s governing body that registers thoroughbreds. Janney is vice chairman.
Janney and Phipps are among the last links to the Whitney and Vanderbilt families, racing’s blue bloods. Phipps’ late father, Ogden, owned Easy Goer and undefeated Personal Ensign. Janney’s parents owned star filly Ruffian.
”Their attitude is the same as mine — we’re going to let the horse take us here,” McGaughey said. ”If Orb hadn’t run good in the Florida Derby, we probably wouldn’t have been here right now. I’ll want to bring the right horse with the right running style and, hopefully, the right temperament that can handle the whole situation, and that’s what we think we’ve got.”
McGaughey last tried the Derby in 2002, when Saarland finished 10th. He never stops thinking about it, though.
”I’m very excited inside,” he said in his typically low-key way, ”but I’m probably not going to show it a whole lot outside.”
Neither will Janney and Phipps, making the trio a perfect match.
At 62, McGaughey realizes time is running short on adding a Derby win to his resume, but he has no regrets about not trying more often.
”I don’t want to push one to get to the Derby that maybe doesn’t deserve to be here and then look up in August and think, `Golly, I wish I had given this horse some more time and he would have been good,’ ” the trainer said.
”Every year, when we get a bunch of 2-year-olds, I’m hoping that one of them will be the horse that can give us the opportunity. All we want is the opportunity.”