LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Shug McGaughey has been training horses since 1979. He won an Eclipse Award in 1988 as most outstanding trainer, he’s won nine Breeders’ Cup races and is in racing’s Hall of Fame.
Until Saturday, the Lexington, Ky., native had never won the race that means the most in his home state.
When the moment finally came, McGaughey let it sink in. As Orb blew by the field on a muddy track at Churchill Downs and crossed the finish line first in the 139th Kentucky Derby, McGaughey stood motionless for a second while others celebrated. Then, he started hugging.
It was the first Kentucky Derby win in the storied history of owners Stuart Janney III and Dinny Phipps and their families. It was the first Kentucky Derby victory for jockey Joel Rosario, who has been winning everything this year.
It was the 62-year-old McGaughey, though, who was the talk of Churchill Downs.
That’s the kind of respect McGaughey has garnered.
“He does it the right way,” Phipps said. “Explain what the right way is? Take your time. Let the horse bring you to the race.”
For all of his success, not many horses have led McGaughey to the Derby.
He had trained six horses in four previous Derbys, and none since Saarland finished 10th in 2002. McGaughey came closest to winning the Derby in 1989 when Easy Goer, owned by Phipps’ father Ogden, was second and Awe Inspiring, owned by Phipps, finished third to Sunday Silence.
McGaughey doesn’t take horses where they won’t take him.
“That’s the way I do it and that’s the way I’m comfortable doing it,” McGaughey said. “I do a lot from watch and feel. I’m not a vacation guy. I like to be at the barn, and that’s where I’m comfortable, and that’s where I want to be, and that’s the way I sort of monitor things.
“I like to watch the horses train, and if I don’t feel like they’re doing things exactly the way I want them to do, then I basically don’t run them.”
McGaughey scratched Point of Entry, also owned by Phipps Stables, from the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic in the race preceding the Derby. It was to be a showdown with 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan but with the rainy conditions and his own judgment, McGaughey made the call. There was no second-guessing.
“I’m lucky I’ve got people that are patient with me and don’t try to, for lack of a better word, interfere, and give me the leniency to do what I want with them without any interference whatsoever,” McGaughey said.
Orb was tabbed the 7-2 morning line favorite when the draw was announced on Wednesday. Fear of the rain that began falling early Saturday and persisted throughout the day led bettors to favor Revolutionary and Goldencents on Friday and bumped Normandy Invasion and Verrazano and Itsmyluckyday into the mix of favorites as post time drew near.
Orb had never run in sloppy conditions.
The rain stopped a little more than an hour before the race but the track was still soaked and wasn’t going to improve much. Starting in the No. 16 gate, Orb didn’t do much to impress early. He was 17th at the three-quarter-mile mark of the 1¼-mile race. That’s when the bay colt began to make his move. Orb had advanced to fifth by the mile post and was second coming down the final straightaway, even though he had to come out from the middle of the track to do so.
Long shot Golden Soul (34-1) placed, 2½ lengths behind Orb, while Revolutionary was third. Normandy Invasion led coming off the final turn but faded to fourth.
“We talked about it,” Rosario said. “Always trying to save ground the first turn and after we passed the three-quarters pole to be able to stay on the outside. Hopefully they were not pushing me wide. But I was perfect, I thought, where I was and it worked out good.”
It was the fifth consecutive win for Orb ($12.80) dating to November and makes him a favorite for the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, at Pimlico in two weeks.
Rosario was the leading rider at Keeneland this spring. He won the Dubai World Cup this year aboard Animal Kingdom. He’s got 128 wins this year in 514 starts and has earned nearly $6 million.
Even he wasn’t thinking about himself in a moment that allows for selfishness.
“To me, it means a lot,” Rosario said. “I’m very happy for Shug, you know, (more) than for myself. I had a perfect trip. (Orb) was really calm, very relaxed and I think Shug did a really good job with him.”
Janney recalled how when McGaughey was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004 McGaughey said at the end of his speech how much he would like to win a Kentucky Derby for either Janney or Phipps.
Saturday, Orb got the first one for all three.
“I won’t have to worry about it anymore,” McGaughey said. “I’ve worried about it for a while. I might not let anybody know that but inside that thought was always there. It’s a huge thrill for me. I appreciate all of the people that were pulling for us, especially the last month since the Florida Derby and we decided to come here. The people behind me at the barn is where the real thrill is.”
“I’ll sleep tonight. I might wake up early but I’ll sleep.”