Trainer Shug McGaughey put an exclamation point on his Hall of Fame credentials by winning Kentucky Derby 139 with Orb.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Shug McGaughey watched the Kentucky Derby on a beaten-up television set on a 10-second delay in a tiny room with no view of the Churchill Down track.
McGaughey had been waiting 62 years to win the race of a lifetime. What difference would another 10 seconds make? He was tucked away in the old track superintendent's office, hidden from the beautiful people preening for the national TV cameras.
That's the McGaughey Hall of Fame, Bluegrass-pedigree. He only shows up when he has a serious 3-year-old, just the second time since 1989. And McGaughey has never been as serious about a Derby horse as he has been with Orb.
So as Orb and jockey Joel Rosario started their thunderous winning move in Derby 139, McGaughey stood with his arms crossed, quietly fixed on the TV. He was surrounded by his wife, Alison, and sons, Chip and Reeve.
"He didn't say much," Chip McGaughey said. "My brother and I were the only ones yelling. This was something he always wanted, but he's always kept it cool."
It wasn't long until all 151,616 racing fans stuffed into Churchill Downs were yelling right along with the McGaugheys. Tucked in 17th place (ahead of two horses) with a half-mile to run, Orb, urged by Rosario, started running down horses like an unblocked linebacker.
"I did get a little bit kind of antsy there for a minute," McGaughey said. "But he kind of made up for that."
Nearly a half-inch of persistent rain had transformed the soupy track into another Kentucky Derby handicapping mystery. But on this day Orb was ready to prove that he could outrun the best 3-yead-olds in the world over gravel, bubble gum or shattered dreams.
Rosario pressed the colt past a dozen horses before they reached the quarter pole – and then the serious running began. Verrazano, Palace Malice and Oxbow could not stay in front of him. Neither could the determined Normandy Invasion.
Now, all that was ahead of him were the wire – and history.
"And you're wanting that finish line to come," McGaughey said.
Surging from the center of the track, Orb drew away at the wire to win the Kentucky Derby by 2 ½ lengths. His winning time was 2:02.89. The Derby Gods had forced McGaughey to wait a lifetime for this moment, but when they finally rewarded him they packaged the glorious moment with just the right serving of irony:
It was precisely the same margin that McGaughey had lost the Derby on a similarly wet and gray day with the favored Easy Goer to Sunday Silence in 1989.
McGaughey pulled his wife and sons together in one prolonged hug, but still didn't say a word. The tears rolling down both cheeks told the story for him. It was the first of many times that McGaughey pulled off his glasses and dabbed a handkerchief at both eyes.
"I'm not going to have to worry about (winning the Derby) any more because I have worried about it for awhile," McGaughey said. "I might not let anybody know that, but inside that thought was always there. Like I said, it's a huge thrill for me.
"It means everything to me. I've always dreamed of this day and it finally came."
"It didn't feel real," Chip McGaughey said.
It was real, all right, because Orb had shown all winter and spring that he was the most formidable 3-year-old in the field. He won an allowance race at Gulfstream Park in South Florida in January and backed that up by scoring in the Fountain of Youth in February.
His rousing come-from-behind victory in the Florida Derby announced that he was a legitimate threat to win the Kentucky Derby. But even though the colt had won his last four races and trained spectacularly all week, some were suspicious of his credentials.
Maybe it was McGaughey's 0-for-6 record in the Derby. Maybe it was the slow closing fractions in the Florida Derby. Orb hung at 7-to-1 on the mutual board for most of Derby day, the third betting choice behind Revolutionary and Goldencents. He didn't become the favorite, 5.40-to-1, until minutes before the starting gate flew open. Then Orb ran the way that a Kentucky Derby favorite is supposed to run.
"He trained like a beast all week," said Doug O'Neill, the trainer of the 2012 Derby winner. "Shug has done a beautiful job with him. He ran a dynamite race. He's got to be flying high. He's a great horse."
"To come over here today and hear the fans and then to see the horse run the race he ran, it's just something I can't really put into words," McGaughey said. "Maybe one day when I settle down, I'll be able to put it into words, but right now I can't."