LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Kentucky Derby tends to wrench visceral reaction out of the winning connections. Men and women exult like giddy children when their horse surges into the lead in the home stretch. That moment when the winner hits the wire and the roses are won can produce an explosion of emotion.
And then there is trainer Shug McGaughey, who was nearly Vulcan in victory Saturday evening. The 62-year-old Hall of Famer and Kentucky native finally won his Derby, and what followed was a momentary silence. There was no screamin' in the rain from Shug.
"When I wake up in the morning, I might scream," he said a few minutes later, standing on the gooey Churchill Downs track where his colt Orb had roared from 17th to first in the final 3/4 of a mile.
This was a résumé-completing victory for McGaughey, who had won almost every other big race but was frustrated in his infrequent other appearances in America's biggest race. It's a race he fancied winning since he was a teenager and came to his first Derby as a fan in 1967, but the eternally patient trainer and his old-school owners, Stuart Janney III and Dinny Phipps, never forced an unprepared horse into the race.
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Saturday, Shug completed the quest. Had the breakthrough. Fulfilled the dream of every Kentucky horseman.
But why stop here? Bring on the Preakness in Baltimore, then bring on the Belmont in New York.
That is a heretical statement in modern thoroughbred racing, where the current Triple Crown drought now stands at 35 years – longest in history. We've seen a succession of pretenders to the throne win two-thirds of the Triple Crown and then falter in the finale – so often that it's almost become a cliché.
Plenty of people think it will never happen again. I have been one of those people. But Orb might be good enough to change my mind.
After a wobbly start to his racing career, losing his first three races, Orb has become a machine. He has won five straight races, improving every time out. He was solid winning the Fountain of Youth in February, impressive in winning the Florida Derby in March and spectacular here Saturday.
And McGaughey threw caution and understatement to the wind when asked about Orb’s potential.
"I think there's more there," he said. "I don't think we've bottomed out. I think he’s still learning how to run a little bit. …
"What I saw today was something different, and I think we've got our hands on a pretty special horse."
Orb has now overcome the speed-favoring bias of Gulfstream Park in Florida and his first-ever foray on a sloppy track here at Churchill. He veritably bounced over the muck Saturday, never appearing to sink into it or struggle through it – reinforcing the "light mover" tag he'd earned from track sharpies.
As expected, Orb was nowhere near the stout early pace in the Derby. Jockey Joel Rosario patiently laid him back in 16th place in the 19-horse field through a half mile. Then he fell a spot further back, to 17th, halfway through the race.
"[Rosario] might have been a little more patient than I wanted him to be," McGaughey said. "But he judged it right."
When Rosario asked Orb for his run at the top of the far turn, the move was startling. Orb launched from 17th to fifth in a quarter mile, then moved up to second in the stretch and pulled clear from the middle of the track in the final eighth of a mile. The final 16th was a coronation, if not a celebration for Shug.
Now comes the hard part. That’s not to say winning the Kentucky Derby is easy – it takes a skilled ride, a fit horse and some racing luck – but winning two more in the next five weeks has proven undoable for the lightly-raced modern thoroughbred.
Sunday Silence could not do it in 1989 – in fact, it was McGaughey who blocked the bid with Easy Goer in the Belmont. Silver Charm could not do it in 1997. Real Quiet came within a nose of immortality a year later but was vanquished at the wire. Charismatic, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown – none of them could complete the quest.
Orb? He has the look of a Triple Crown winner. His general appearance and workouts at Churchill produced more pre-Derby superlatives than any other horse I've seen in my 26 years covering the race.
Then he backed it up in the slop Saturday. If Orb comes out of this race in good condition, he figures to be a prohibitive favorite in the Preakness in two weeks.
"To tell you the truth, I can't wait," McGaughey said. "We'll have to come back and monitor him, and I think he came out of this race good. He's been coming out of his other races good. …
"We're set up better than anybody. If everything is right, I can't wait to get to the Preakness and do it again."
Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown. Despite the difficulty of the task, Orb has a decent chance to be the 12th.
If he does it, even buttoned-down Shug McGaughey might let out of a scream at the wire at Belmont five weeks from now.
Kentucky Derby replay from start to finish:
Related Kentucky Derby coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Watch: Orb rallies from pack to win Kentucky Derby
• Orb blasts through Kentucky mud for Derby win
• Watch: Jockey, trainer talk Kentucky Derby win
• Final Kentucky Derby results
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