Photo courtesy of Horsephotos.com
Shug McGaughey has saddled nine Eclipse Award champions and nine Breeders’ Cup winners during a Hall of Fame training career that has spanned more than three decades. The native of Lexington, Ky., looks to win the race of his dreams as he prepares Orb for the Kentucky Derby on May 4. McGaughey, 62, is taking America’s Best Racing readers along for the ride. Here is the first installment of his Derby Diary, as told to Tom Pedulla:
As much as I would like to make the Kentucky Derby every May and I study every 2-year-old colt that enters the barn with that in mind, I have always said the horse must take you there. You cannot work against nature by trying to force the issue.
If you told me last year that Orb would be the horse to take me to the Derby, I would never have believed it. He did not show me a whole lot early on. He needed four starts to break his maiden and did not get that done until last Nov. 24 at Aqueduct Racetrack. When we put him away for the winter, the first Saturday in May was the farthest thing from my mind.
When we brought him to Payson Park to resume training, he just matured. He won an allowance race at Gulfstream Park in late January, and I started to get excited when I saw how well he was doing as he worked toward the Fountain of Youth [Stakes]. Once we cleared that hurdle, he became a completely different horse from the Fountain of Youth to the Florida Derby.
As Orb took his place in the post parade for the Florida Derby, I wondered if he could possibly run as well as he had trained. I have been around long enough to know sometimes they show you something in the morning that doesn’t show up quite so well in the afternoon.
I also worried about whether he could keep winning at Gulfstream Park. Gulfstream is, and always has been, a speed-favoring surface and he prefers to come from off the pace. But he accomplished what we needed to accomplish there, he came out of the Florida Derby very well and I cannot wait to see what he can do when he is not running against such a pronounced track bias.
ORB WINNING FLORIDA DERBY
If everything continues to go well, Orb will be the seventh starter I will lead over for the Kentucky Derby. The one thing I do know is what kind of horse you’ve got to take over there. He’s got to be able to handle the week. He’s got to be able to handle the day. He’s got to be able to handle 20 horses, plus be a pretty good horse.
Orb is an easy-tempered horse. Saddling him for the Florida Derby, I was wondering if he was too calm. The warm weather, the big crowd, nothing seemed to faze him. But he gets on his toes once he reaches the walking ring and he’s got fire in his belly when he needs it.
Because he has done so well there, I kept him at Payson Park for as long as possible before shipping him to Churchill Downs on April 21. We got two solid breezes into him before he left for Kentucky. I was relieved when he covered five furlongs in 1:02 1/5 seconds at Payson Park the morning of April 21 while working in the company of Puzzling, a 5-year-old mare. He galloped out six furlongs in 1:14 4/5 seconds.
This was the work we wanted to get behind us. I needed to see him finish well for his exercise rider, Jennifer Patterson, and he delivered. If everything continues to go as I hope it will, I am looking at one work at Churchill Downs to get him comfortable with that surface, on Monday of Derby week.
Although things don’t have to go exactly according to plan, you can’t vary too much. I am pleased we were able to line up Joel Rosario to ride after John Velazquez was hurt in a spill at Aqueduct. We wish John the best but we are very comfortable with Rosario. He knows Orb well, having ridden him through his first five starts. That familiarity will certainly help. And no one can doubt his ability to win big races after his flawless ride on Animal Kingdom in the Dubai World Cup.
As excited as I am, I keep telling myself to have fun at this Derby. When I went there before, I think I was probably a little more uptight than I needed to be in a state that will always feel like home. I have a pretty good following in Kentucky, growing up in Lexington and living in Louisville when I first started training. But I have really been affected by how many people, from all over, have called or texted to wish me, the Phipps family and the Janneys good luck.
When fans tell you that you deserve to win the Derby, it is impossible to put into words how much that means.
SHUG McGAUGHEY SLIDESHOW