Score one for the old school.
Orb’s stretch-running victory in the 139th Kentucky Derby was not only trainer Shug McGaughey’s first success in the race, but also a vindication of a philosophy that today seems almost quaint. Whenever the Hall of Famer was asked why he had come to the Derby for only the second time since 1989, he never said that this is the race that every trainer aspires to win. His answer was always along the lines of: “The horse brought me here.”
Casual fans watching the NBC telecast might barely have known who McGaughey is, because he’s not part of the cast of characters (Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Nick Zito) who regularly populate the Triple Crown races. Yet people within the industry look on him with a respect that borders on reverence. When a TV interviewer collared Doug O’Neill, trainer of Goldencents, immediately after Saturday’s race, he promptly said: “Hats off to Shug! He’s so worthy, he’s such an unbelievable trainer, he’s so patient. He doesn’t bring ’em over here unless they’re ready.”
While all trainers recognize and talk about the importance of patience, few trainers exhibit it, especially when the Derby is concerned. They used to. The late Charlie Whittingham operated the most powerful stable in the West for decades, but he didn’t take a horse to the Derby for 26 years until he won with Ferdinand in 1986.
It was Wayne Lukas who changed the way the game is played. He recognized that the way to build his reputation and attract owners was to win the most high-profile races, particularly the 3-year-old classics. Every year he was a general masterminding an all-out assault on the Derby, and he threw his troops into battle knowing they would have to sustain casualties in the pursuit of his objective. Lukas became the most famous and successful trainer in the United States, and his obsession with the Derby became the norm.
The old school believes a trainer should not manage a horse to fulfill the personal ambitions of the owner or trainer. The old school believes a trainer should be guided by the development and the capabilities of the animal. The old school believes judicious handling will eventually bring rewards.
McGaughey elaborated on the philosophy at the post-Derby news conference. “I like to be at the barn, I like to watch horses, and if they’re not doing exactly what I want them to do, I don’t run them,” he said. “If you force a horse into a race and make a mistake, it’s a big mistake. There’s always another race down the road.”
McGaughey subordinated his personal desires to this philosophy. He is a native of Kentucky, so the Derby is in his blood, and his failure to win the race was a significant hole in his otherwise illustrious résumé. He might have seemed indifferent to the Derby, but he was burning to win it. “I always wanted to be in the Derby — if I had the right horse,” he said. “And this year I had the right horse.”
Orb had lost the first three starts of his career, but when the colt went to Florida this winter, McGaughey witnessed a transformation. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing day in and day out,” he said. Yet even after Orb won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream — a performance that would have put most trainers’ 3-year-olds on the fast track to Louisville — McGaughey wasn’t thinking about going to Churchill Downs. It took Orb’s victory in the Florida Derby to convince him.
Orb’s steady development continued when he got to Kentucky. Daily Racing Form clocker Mike Welsch, among others, raved almost daily about how good Orb looked and acted. It was the classic McGaughey pattern. Because of the trainer’s patient management, his horses get better over time. And Orb was at his very best on Saturday, scoring an authoritative 2½-length victory.
Is he a great horse? Is he the next Triple Crown winner? It is difficult to make a definitive judgment on the basis of the Derby. A sloppy track muddies any post-race analysis because it is impossible to know if a horse has run well or poorly because of an affinity or a dislike for the surface. For those of us who rely on speed figures to assess horses, the off-and-on rain in Louisville caused the track to change during the day and made any calculations difficult. However, I am reasonably confident in the accuracy of Orb’s Beyer Speed Figure of 104, which is better than I’ll Have Another and Animal Kingdom earned in the last two years but still below the historical average for the Derby.
The Derby was affected not only by the weather but by the way the early part of the race was run. When Palace Malice unexpectedly shot to a big lead and rocketed the first six furlongs in 1 minute 09.8 seconds, the pace was what NBC commentator Randy Moss described as “radioactive.” Every horse near Palace Malice was contaminated. The speed horses chasing him all collapsed, and the horses running 17-15-18-6-16 at the six-furlong mark wound up finishing 1-2-3-4-5. Of the four horses closest to Orb, only one had ever won a stakes race, suggesting that the Derby outcome was as much a result of pace as the pure talent of the runners.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to make a case that any of Orb’s 18 foes might prove to be a better horse under different circumstances. The speed horses were trounced so badly that they were discredited, and Orb was the best of the stretch-runners. (The one possible exception might be fourth-place Normandy Invasion, whose jockey moved to the lead prematurely.) As Orb aims for the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, he doesn’t appear to have many credible rivals. McGaughey’s Derby victory could be just the beginning of an historic feat.
For prevous columns by Andrew Beyer, visit washingtonpost.com/