All eyes may be on Orb, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the favorite to win Saturday’s Preakness Stakes, but behind this feisty bay colt is a quiet, humble man named Shug McGaughey who has one thing on his mind: his job.
Orb, ridden by Joel Rosario, beat out 18 horses at the Kentucky Derby on May 4, rallying from the back of the pack to win by 2 1/2 lengths on the rain-soaked track at Louisville’s Churchill Downs. Rosario will again ride Orb at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness, the second jewel of the Triple Crown. The last race, the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y., is a grueling 1.5 miles and takes place June 8.
As Orb’s trainer, McGaughey’s job is to win races, yes, but it’s also to support his teammates — some of whom he’s worked with for more three decades. The goal is to give the thoroughbred the best shot possible of winning thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, a victory that hasn’t been achieved since Affirmed did it in 1978.
McGaughey is quick to credit others for Orb’s success so far but reluctant to take credit for himself. “The people — when you’ve been doing this this long, they come and they go, but most of ours stay,” he said Thursday at Pimlico.
He said he wouldn’t be where he is today if not for Jennifer Patterson, the woman who exercises the colt. “Really and truly, the whole thing revolves around her — the good job she’s done exercising him and what a good job she’s done maybe kind of handling me,” McGaughey said.
And while he admits he’s the one getting the accolades, he said “they’re the ones who make it work.”
“I think I’ve been more humbled lately than maybe ever before,” McGaughey said. “Just through this Derby experience and stuff, you know, kind of what people do mean to you and how, you know, some people who work for you have got your back.”
McGaughey, 62, is a true Kentuckian, born not far from Claiborne Farm, which has foaled two Triple Crown winners and eight Kentucky Derby winners, including Orb. But the job he landed working with horses was a fluke.
“I had a friend out at Keeneland and said, ‘I need a job,’ and he said, ‘Be here in the morning,’ ” McGaughey said. He started as a groom, eventually earning his license to train. He was doing well enough to catch the eyes of first cousins Dinny Phipps and Stuart Janney, the owners of Orb and members of a prominent breeding and racing family that McGaughey has worked for since 1985.
“They were looking for a trainer, and so they interviewed me and I got the job. It was a dream job for me,” McGaughey said.
McGaughey has many wins under his belt as a trainer, including Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer in 1989, but the horses he trained never won a Derby until this year. He took a long break from racing after two of the horses he trained, Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring, finished second and third to Sunday Silence at 1989’s Kentucky Derby. Thirteen years later he entered Saarland in the Derby, who finished in 10th place.
He said he didn’t take the breaks on purpose. “I just didn’t have a horse I thought was capable.”
What does McGaughey see in Orb? Well, at first, he didn’t see much.
“What I saw was what he was bringing to the table. Every time we ran him, he just got better and better, but when we started out in January with him, we had no idea we’d be standing here with him today. We didn’t have this in mind. He just won his first race Nov. 24, and at that time I was thinking, ‘Maybe he’s going to be OK sometime,’ but I didn’t think we were going to win the Kentucky Derby. He was far back there [during the race], but I knew when he pushed the button we were going to be a factor.”
Orb will start the Preakness from the position closest to the rail, which means he may need to break out ahead quickly to avoid getting trapped among his competitors. Tabasco Cat was the last horse to win the Preakness from the rail position, in 1994 — which makes one win from that slot out of the past 52 times the race has been run.
But McGaughey remains optimistic. “Well, they always told me the shortest way around there was on the rail. He’ll be fine.”
In the background as McGaughey spoke, Orb was getting a bath. The thoroughbred stood tall and restless, jerking his muscular head alertly toward the crowd and biting on the leather straps that held him in place. “He’s a bit of a ham,” McGaughey said, chuckling.
McGaughey said that even if Orb doesn’t win the Triple Crown, “My dream came true. A week ago this past Saturday [when the Kentucky Derby was held] — that was something I’ve dreamed about for years, since I got into this, you know, working with thoroughbreds.
“I’ve always said that I wished I’d won it when I was young, so I wouldn’t have had to worry about it anymore, but I don’t believe that now. I think that I appreciate it a lot more now, and I think the people probably appreciate it for me a lot more, because hopefully they know what we’ve tried to do over the years and appreciate that.”