As the realization of a lifelong dream unfolded before him on a soggy first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, Claude Ray â€œShugâ€ McGaughey was not watching from a warm and cozy spot on Millionaires Row, over even one of the Churchill Downs boxes in Section 318 where the connections of Kentucky Derby runners spend some of the most anxious two-minute increments of their lives.
Although he works for one of the few â€œold moneyâ€ family stables that were commonplace in racingâ€™s brightest days in the American sports spotlight in the middle decades of the 20th century, Shug watched his first Kentucky Derby come to pass from the spot in which he is most comfortable. He was downstairs on the bricks, watching the race on a television in a small office just off the side of the paddock runway.
It was there that Shug quietly watched Orb fly down the middle of the sloppy track, blow past his remaining challengers and win the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands by an emphatic 2 1/2 lengths. Only when a couple of bystanders embraced him did McGaughey allow himself to smile.
But there were no high-fives. There was no jumping about to celebrate the achievement of a lifetime dream. The Lexington native smiled and simply headed across the track to the infield Winnerâ€™s Circle that greets only one horse each year.
Thatâ€™s the winner of the Kentucky Derby, and in 2013 that horse came from Shug McGaugheyâ€™s barn.
During a training career that had already earned McGaughey a spot in the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame, the native son of the Commonwealth has now won the sportsâ€™ ultimate prize.
â€œItâ€™s a race Iâ€™ve always wanted to win, a race Iâ€™ve always wanted to compete in if I thought I had the right horse,â€ McGaughey said during the post-win press conference. â€œFinally today, we had the right horse.â€
McGaughey scored his first victory as a trainer in 1976 at New Hampshireâ€™s Rockingham Park, but prior to last Saturday, McGaughey had only had seven horses in the Kentucky Derby, two-horse entries in a pair of those. His best chance at winning was clearly a 1989 run by Easy Goer, a talented and beautifully-bred colt who ran into a California-based buzzsaw named Sunday Silence. Those horses participated in one of the great East-West rivalries in American racing in the latter half of the 20th century.
The McGaughey-trained Easy Goer and stablemate Awe Inspiring finished second and third, respectively, on that cold and rainy Saturday at Churchill Downs. The trainer had saddled only one Derby hopeful since Easy Goer, a stretch that says much more about the patience of the trainer and his main clients than the quality of the well-bred horses in his care.
Orb, a son of the Maryland-based stallion Malibu Moon, is owned and bred by two branches of one of the most revered families in racing. Ogden Mills â€œDinnyâ€ Phipps heads Phipps Stable, which hired McGaughey to be its private trainer in 1985. Phipps Stableâ€™s partner is Stuart Janney III, a cousin of the Phippses whose family owned and raced the great filly Ruffian. A deep and abiding love of Thoroughbred racing and breeding has been a part of life in their families for nearly two centuries.
The working relationship between Phipps and McGaughey has really been a beautiful friendship. The Kentuckianâ€™s thoughtful, patient approach fit perfectly with the Phipps philosophy, and now it has produced a first-ever thrill for both the trainer and the Phipps and Janney families: a victory in the Kentucky Derby.
â€œHe does it the right way,â€ an appreciative Phipps said of McGaugheyâ€™s style moments after the realization of their shared dream.Â â€œTake your time. Let the horse bring you to the race.â€
On the morning after Orbâ€™s Kentucky Derby win, McGaughey made it clear that his feeling toward the Phipps and Janney families was mutual.
â€œI think itâ€™s pretty unusual to have people that are as patient as they are, to have the relationships that weâ€™ve got between owner and trainer,â€ he said. â€œThereâ€™s absolutely no interference whatsoever, and with that it allows me to do and operate in the best way that I think that I can. Iâ€™m not sure that if I was in a position where someone was pushing me that I would be able to train the way that I do and that would, maybe, force me into making a mistake that I donâ€™t want to make.â€
Another part of Orbâ€™s Kentucky Derby is Claiborne Farm, the legendary Paris, Ky., racing and breeding operation where the 2013 Derby winner was foaled and raised.Â The Phipps familyâ€™s mares reside there, and Orb is the tenth Derby winner to be raised or foaled on its sprawling grounds.
Jockey Joel Rosario, the hottest young star in racing, was the newcomer to the team, but he rides with the confidence of Derby legends Hartack and Arcaro.Â One gets the feeling that reporters will be talking with Rosario for many Kentucky Derbies to come.
McGaughey was quick to deflect praise to his owners and rider, and to his barn staff.Â But also in his thoughts in the moments following the greatest triumph of a Hall-of-Fame career were the many people who helped him step into racing and make it a career.Â And he thought of those who have shared the journey with him.
Those thoughts certainly included David Carr, who offered McGaughey, then a student at Ole Miss, a hot-walking job that became a job as assistant trainer.Â In the mid-70â€™s, he went to work as a groom for Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whitely, and later became an assistant to Whitelyâ€™s son, David.
Many others were on Shug McGaugheyâ€™s mind in the hours after Orb crossed the finish line at soggy Churchill Downs, the moment he could, for the first time, say that he had trained the winner of the Kentucky Derby. He talked of those friends on the morning after the race.
â€œThe biggest thing I think about is a lot of the guys I came around with, like (trainer) Steve Penrod, who was here when I got here this morning, that are every bit as good or better trainer or horseman that I am, but they didnâ€™t get this opportunity,â€ McGaughey said.Â â€œ(Former trainer) Mike Bell, who was the guy that told me that â€˜You ought to come to work for the Whiteleys.â€™ Same thing.Â He didnâ€™t ever get this opportunity. Sometimes I pinch myself and say â€˜Why is this happening to me?
â€œWhen I got started and got to really rolling, I remember many days after we won a big race thereâ€™s a lot of people that are underneath the screen and that nobody knows about that helped me get to where I am today. I know who they are and I appreciate what theyâ€™ve done and the little ways they did it.Â I know who they are, and theyâ€™re in my thoughts, too.â€
It was a Kentucky Derby that was as stepped in reverence for the sportâ€™s tradition as any in recent memory.Â And the story is not over.
The Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, the remaining jewels of the Triple Crown, await. No horse has swept those races since Affirmed won the crown 35 years ago.
Orb has much work to do to end that string, but his resounding Kentucky Derby victory made it clear he has the foundation for the large task ahead.