LOUISVILLE, KY. – Trainer Shug McGaughey came to his barn Sunday morning before the sun had cleared the horizon, as he has done most days for more than 35 years.
Dozens of people were gathered there, under the roof, dodging the rain and trying to get a look at Orb, who won the 139th Kentucky Derby on Saturday. The colt munched on hay and observed the scene. He let some girls come pet him and get their picture taken.
Orb came out of the mile-and-a-quarter Derby, run over a drenched Churchill Downs track, with no signs of injury or fatigue and will officially begin preparing for a run in the 138th Preakness Stakes on May 18.
McGaughey was shuffled from interview to interview, often saying that he still had trouble describing the feeling of winning his first Derby.
But in a quiet moment when he’d broken from the pack, he explained it, without realizing, to two friends.
“How many Thanksgiving dinners have we had out of Styrofoam containers?” he said. “An awful lot of them.”
McGaughey has given his life over to training. Since 1985, he’s worked exclusively for the Phipps Stable and Janneys, two branches of the same long-time horse racing family that had also been unable — or, some say, unwilling — to win a Kentucky Derby.
After one sweeping late charge covering 200 yards, they’re chasing the Triple Crown. And McGaughey said without reservation that he relishes the role — and thinks his horse can become the first to follow a Derby win with victories in the Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed in 1978.
“I hope the target is really big,” McGaughey said. “I want it to be on me. I can take it and I enjoy this experience and I will enjoy the next experience just as much. If we’re able to pull it off the next time, the target is going to get really big and I want it that way.”
Orb shipped back to McGaughey’s Belmont Park base Sunday, arriving at about 3 p.m. He’s preliminarily scheduled to spend more than a week there and leave for Baltimore next Tuesday.
The colt, son of one-time Maryland stallion Malibu Moon, appears to have come out of the race healthy. By the time McGaughey and his wife, Alison, made it back to the barn Saturday night, he was standing calmly as if he’d never even left.
“Didn’t look like he’d just had 150,000 people yelling at him,” Alison McGaughey said. “He just wanted me to give him peppermints and cookies. I spoil him.”
Alison wore a hat that read “Old School” in small letters on the front Sunday. Similarly-sized letters on the back spelled out “Shug Style.”
“Patience,” McGaughey said when asked to describe his methods. The Phipps and Janneys have rarely deemed their 3-year-olds ready to run the American Classics that make up the Triple Crown, and co-owner Stuart Janney III, a Maryland native and resident, avoided speaking of the Preakness as if it were a foregone conclusion even in the euphoric moments after winning the race.
“If he does OK,” he said, “we’ll probably be there.”
Alison McGaughey described the run-up to the Derby as “bizarre but flattering” because of how many opposing trainers, jockeys and owners expressed a desire to see her likable husband win. Then, when it happened, the couple appeared unsure of how to react.
“When he won, it was almost like we didn't even realize it,” she said. “I don't even remember watching the race. And Orb won and Shug just sort of looked up at me. Other people started yelling, 'You won the Derby!' and you think, 'Oh, my god.' But I didn't even know where I was at that moment. I don't remember it.”
McGaughey went to a local steakhouse to celebrate the win with members of the Phipps family, including the head of that stable, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps.
Janney, who co-owns the colt with Phipps, his first cousin, attended the post-race party Saturday night but by Sunday had boarded a flight bound for Dallas, where he had previously set up meetings related to his work as chairman of the wealth management firm Bessemer Trust.
Janney’s last Preakness hopeful, Coronado’s Quest, was lame for a few hours the day before the race and had to be scratched in 1998.
McGaughey said he had no concerns with how Orb, who has won five in a row, would fare with only two weeks rest between races.
“That is one of the things that I been really amazed at is how well he has come out of his races all winter, you never know how they will react in two weeks,” he said. “But you know, he hasn’t been overcooked and I would be disappointed if he didn’t bounce back and be just the same horse that we saw yesterday.”
Pimlico, home to the Preakness, has a narrow track that forces jockeys to navigate tight turns. McGaughey hasn’t raced there frequently but said he had no reservations about the track.
Nor is he concerned with carrying the hopes of a sport in slow but steady decline. Each year, the Derby winner is seen as a horse who can capture the average American sports fan’s attention. Asked if Orb could give a boost to horse racing, he said: “I think he can give a big one, especially if we get by this next stop.”