Some trainers bring horses to the Kentucky Derby, and some let the horses bring them.
McGaughey is about to enter his first Derby horse in 11 years. He’s a tall, strapping, chocolate-colored colt named Orb, and he’s a good bet to depose Verrazano as the pre-race favorite for Saturday’s spectacle.
Claude R. McGaughey III is a 62-year-old Lexington, Ky., native who launched his solo career at Churchill Downs. He is not immune to the Derby’s charms, and he does not abstain by choice.
“There are none any more important to me than this one,” he said. “But I don’t want to come here and possibly make a mistake. I put the horse first.”
Translation: He believes this horse can finish first.
After training Saturday, the diminutive McGaughey was uncharacteristically relaxed and talkative, holding court like Yoda among the Jedi.
Like my horse a lot I do.
So does everyone else. Orb arrived at Churchill Downs last Monday, and the chorus of hosannas hasn’t stopped since.
“I just love the way he moves,” said trainer Bob Baffert, a three-time Derby winner.
“Orb looks amazing every day on the track,” tweeted Jill Byrne, Churchill’s official oddsmaker. “(He) is picture perfect.”
“Physically, Orb is a standout,” workout analyst Bruno DeJulio said.
Verbal palm fronds aside, Orb’s mere presence on the list of probable starters stamps him as a “live horse.”
Orb’s trainer is old school. So is the Phipps family, Orb’s owner. The Phipps-McGaughey axis doesn’t rush young horses – and they don’t bring knives to a gunfight.
Their 1989 entrant, Easy Goer, was an odds-on favorite. Their 2002 entrant, Saarland, was second choice.
The Phipps family are old money types who would consider it an affront to good taste and good horsemanship to thrust into the Derby an animal that didn’t belong.
Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps and Stuart Janney III are cousins from an aristocratic brood prominent in American racing since the late 19th century. Grandpa was partners with Lord Derby himself; they co-owned a stable in France.
Janney’s immediate family owned the legendary filly Ruffian. Dinny’s dad owned the almost-as-legendary Personal Ensign, an undefeated mare trained by McGaughey. Dinny himself has campaigned one Kentucky Oaks winner, Dispute in 1987, and four Breeders’ Cup winners.
Few spring 3-year-olds are ready to run in the Kentucky Derby. It’s a crucible that makes extreme demands of a young horse’s mind and body. The ill-prepared are often never heard from again.
So the Phippses don’t bring horses to Louisville for funsies. Orb will carry Ruffian’s colors because he earned the trip. Stuart, Dinny and Shug are just along for the ride.
“They are satisfied with the position we’re in,” McGaughey said, “and I am too.”
As well they should be.
Orb has won four consecutive races, including the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth and the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Verrazano, the racing media’s fave rave until recently, also has won four straight. But Orb is, on paper anyway, better bred to handle the grueling 1 ¼-mile test.
He is a grandson of A.P. Indy and Unbridled, two greats of the modern era on the track and in the breeding shed. Unbridled won the Derby in 1990. A.P. Indy won the Belmont in 1992. Each annexed the Breeders’ Cup Classic as 3-year-olds.
Unbridled and A.P. Indy flashed their talent instantly. Orb did not. He lost his first three starts, not surprising for a horse whose bloodlines say he will peak at age 4.
“We haven’t seen the best of Orb yet,” DeJulio said. “That comes next year if he stays healthy.”
Orb finally broke his maiden on Thanksgiving weekend. The Kentucky Derby was the furthest thing from McGaughey’s mind. He was hesitant even to bring the colt with his A-team to Gulfstream Park for the winter.
“I didn’t really expect him to win down there,” McGaughey said. “If you asked me three months ago if I’d be standing here, I’d say no.”
But a funny thing happened over Christmas break: Orb grew up. His January workouts in Florida were surprisingly impressive.
“Exceptionally, exceptionally good,” McGaughey said.
That’s two superlatives from a plain-spoken guy who rarely uses any. Superlative races soon followed, races so good that they all but forced the conservative McGaughey to keep entering Orb in better races.
Orb burst on the scene Feb. 23 by defeating the consensus division leader, Violence, in the Fountain of Youth. The pace was absurdly swift. Unlike ordinary closers, Orb didn’t wait for the race to melt down. He made an explosive middle move – precisely the kind that wins most Kentucky Derbys – then persevered in deep stretch to nip Violence by a 1/2 length.
On to the Florida Derby, where the pace was slow. Showing rare versatility, Orb stayed within four lengths of the early lead and, when asked, blithely cruised by a multiple stakes winner, Itsmyluckyday, to win by nearly three lengths.
Jockey John Velasquez told McGaughey that Orb matured into a push-button horse that day. Good thing. Authentic Derby contenders must be responsive to a rider’s commands.
“Johnny said, ‘I pushed the button and he jumped into it, but he was going to get to the leaders faster than I wanted him to, so I throttled him back down,’” McGaughey recalled. “That wasn’t something we’d seen before.”
There was no denying it now. McGaughey had his first Derby horse in a decade and his best 3-year-old prospect since Easy Goer came to Louisville 24 years ago.
“Orb is beyond big and beautiful,” said Molly Jo Rosen, workout analyst and author of the Focused Filly blog. “He is a very powerful, beautiful moving horse. He’s a little bit of a throwback. (His gallop Saturday) was long, low and what they call ‘stretchy.’”
Sounds a tad like Easy Goer, the best horse McGaughey ever had. But Churchill Downs isn’t the best place to mention the big red colt. It was the site of two crushing disappointments – a second to Sunday Silence in the 1989 Derby and, in a huge upset, another second in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to a mud-loving sprinter named Is It True.
The ’88 Breeders’ Cup was the best and worst of times for McGaughey. Personal Ensign ended her peerless career 13 for 13 with a win in the Distaff, but in addition to Easy Goer’s galling defeat, Seeking the Gold also ran second in the Classic to Alysheba.
Head down, McGaughey skulked back to the barns. At 37, he still half-expected to win each and every race.
On the long, cold walk, an elderly rival asked McGaughey how his day had gone. McGaughey joylessly recounted:
“One win, two seconds and a no-good. The guy said, ‘Well, you had a good day.’”
McGaughey turned and saw that the guy was Charlie Whittingham, the Bald Eagle, one of the greatest horses trainers who ever lived.
“That was a huge, huge learning (experience) for me,” McGaughey said. “I did have a good day. I’ve thought back a lot of times on that.
“Coming here this year, with experience under my belt, the places I’ve been, the horses I’ve been around, my confidence level is a lot higher. I know what to expect, good or bad.”
McGaughey and the Phipps family probably deserve some good in the Kentucky Derby. One of the few prizes that has eluded them is the prize that everyone covets most.
This might be their year, says trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will nonetheless saddle two horses hoping to make it otherwise.
“The racing gods seem to reward those people who have done so much for racing and are stalwarts in the industry, so to speak,” Lukas said. “So I’m a little scared of Stuart Janney and Shug McGaughey. They are overdue.”
Postscript: For more on Orb, read the Derby diary that McGaughey is writing for a website called America’s Best Racing.