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.