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Features - RACING

Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Shug McGaughey trained nine Eclipse Award winners comprising a “Who’s Who” list of Thoroughbreds that includes Personal Ensign, a model of perfection in all 13 of her starts.

McGaughey’s horses won eight Breeders’ Cup races. That glittering list consists of Dancing Spree (1989 Sprint), Rhythm (1989 Juvenile), Lure (1992 and 1993 Mile), Inside Information (1995 Distaff), My Flag (1995 Juvenile Fillies), Storm Flag Flying (2002 Juvenile Fillies) and Pleasant Home (2005 Distaff).

But, through more than three decades of early mornings and anxious nights, there is a gaping hole in a resume strong enough to allow McGaughey to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004, his first year of eligibility. He has not won the Kentucky Derby.

“It’d be hard for me to put into words, but it would mean an awful lot,” said the Lexington, Ky., native. “I can’t say that probably every morning I get up and do this and that I’m not dreaming of winning the Kentucky Derby. Now, obviously, I’ve never won it, so I don’t know what the feeling is like. But I’m looking forward to the day when I do know what it’s like and, hopefully, it will be sooner more than later.”

There may be no better time than the present. McGaughey, who had six starters in the “Run for the Roses” and came closest when Easy Goer rallied to finish second to Sunday Silence by 2 ½ lengths in 1989, will have a much better idea of his chances after he sends Orb into the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on Saturday (NBC Sports Network, 6-7 p.m. ET).

Orb boasts a three-race winning streak that includes a victory in which he circled four wide to prevail by a half-length in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 23 at Gulfstream in his most recent effort. McGaughey has been Kentucky Derby dreamin’ since then.

“One of the things that I like about what we’re doing right now is to see the improvement that this horse has made over the last two or three months,” said McGaughey, 62. “You know the horse that won the Fountain of Youth, I think, is not the same horse that I’m seeing today. The other thing, his pedigree and his running style, he’s the horse that’s going to get the distance.

“He’ll relax no matter what’s going on in the race, whether it’s a slow pace, fast pace, wherever the rider wants him to be. His last three times, really, we’ve just let him run his own race - don’t force him to do something he doesn’t want to do.”

McGaughey is renowned for his patience. He will not rush the development of horses to have them ready for the first Saturday in May, no matter how much the opening leg of the Triple Crown means to him.

“We kind of bring our horses along a little bit slower,” he said. “You know, a lot of guys, that’s their goal is to get to the Derby and we don’t really do it that way, even though I want them to get there. But I want the horse to take me.”

With McGaughey allowing the Malibu Moon colt to take his time, Orb did not reach the winner’s circle until his fourth start, last Nov. 24 at Aqueduct. He followed that with a one-length score in an allowance race at Gulfstream on Jan. 26 before making a successful late charge in his first time with John Velazquez aboard in the Fountain of Youth.



Photo courtesy of Eclispe Sportswire

Velazquez’s greatest concern is that Orb not lose the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby before it begins. The youngster has some history of becoming unglued in the starting gate.

“He’s definitely a very talented horse. I just hope he can overcome that fear of the gate,” Velazquez said. “He did it last time. For me, he was perfect.”

McGaughey twice schooled Orb in the gate in preparation for a 10-horse race that represents one of the most important Kentucky Derby preps of the spring. Orb is listed as a 3-1 third choice in the early odds behind rousing Holy Bull victor Itsmyluckyday (2-1) and 2-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby (5-2).

Velazquez feels certain McGaughey will have the youngster as ready as he can be for a top performance, one good enough to convince his trainer he should go on to Churchill Downs to continue his quest to bring home the roses.

“When you’ve got Shug McGaughey and that caliber of trainer, you are always really confident,” Velazquez said. “They come to win these races.”

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