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Features - RACING

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing

Trainer Shug McGaughey emerged from Orb’s stall in Barn 43 at Churchill Downs on Friday morning to show his assistant, Jennifer Patterson, how thoroughly their prized 3-year-old cleaned his feed tub.

He displayed the empty container like a proud father showing his infant son had finished his bottle. To McGaughey, it was the latest piece of evidence that he was finally bringing the right horse to run for the roses.

Orb proved one day later that he is indeed the 3-year-old of his Hall of Fame trainer’s dreams, benefitting from a scorching pace to splash home by 4 ½ commanding lengths over long shot Golden Soul in the 139th Kentucky Derby.

“It means everything to me,” said an emotional McGaughey, 62, after receiving a tremendous ovation from the 151,616 fans who were drawn to the Twin Spires despite inclement weather. “I always dreamed this day would finally come.”

Although McGaughey has overseen nine Eclipse Award champions and as many Breeders’ Cup winners, although his horses earned more than $116 million, there was always a “but” to accompany those very big numbers for the native of Lexington, Ky.

Given his innate patience and his determination that he would compete on the first Saturday in May only if the horse took him there, he had brought only six previous starters to the opening leg of the Triple Crown. He had come away empty each time, including a devastating setback with Easy Goer in 1989. Easy Goer would go on to take the Belmont Stakes but, for McGaughey, the big one had gotten away. Again.

This time, it did not.

“I do think I had the right horse,” he said. “He’s done everything well all spring. He trained well. He shipped well. He did everything well when he got here.”

McGaughey never imagined last winter that Orb would be the one he waited a lifetime for. The youngster did not break his maiden until last Nov. 24 at Aqueduct. The trainer thought he might be capable of knocking off some allowance races, although not necessarily where he intended to race him early in his 3-year-old season. His closing style appeared to be a poor fit for speed-favoring Gulfstream Park.

But then Orb won an allowance race at Gulfstream in January and he began to blossom. He took the Fountain of Youth Stakes there in February and then the Florida Derby at the end of March. It seemed that every time McGaughey stuck his head into the youngster’s stall, he left with a broad smile.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” McGaughey said.

Off the track, Orb was thriving, a youngster discovering that he possessed a world of talent. On the track, he was defeating top competition with a late kick that often proves futile at Gulfstream Park. Owned by Stuart S. Janney III and the Phipps Stable, Orb turned the Derby into his fifth consecutive victory after an awkward start that had him as far back as 17th in the field of 19 in the early going.


Phipps -Janney

Photo courtesy of

Joel Rosario, who earlier this year triumphed aboard Animal Kingdom in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, wondered if his Derby mount was not being left with too much to do on a sloppy track.

“I was far back, but I said, ‘Hopefully, they are going fast enough.’ “

They sure were. Palace Malice, the surprise front-runner, was sizzling on the lead. He clicked off an opening quarter in 22.57, the half in 45.33 and three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.80. McGaughey knew everything was setting up perfectly.

“I saw him coming to the quarter pole and I said, ‘He’s going to have a chance because he’s going to finish,’ ” McGaughey said.

Although Orb appeared to be a little unsure of himself after making the lead, no one threatened him. He completed 1 ¼ miles in 2:02.89.

Golden Soul finished second and Revolutionary took third as the top finisher among trainer Todd Pletcher’s record-tying five starters. McGaughey was left to experience an indescribable thrill.

“To come over here today and hear the fans and see the horse run the way he ran,” McGaughey said, “I can’t put it into words.”

For an Equibase chart, click here.


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