Shug McGaughey is as Kentucky as blue grass. Every spring when the new crop of 2-year-olds comes into his barn, the veteran trainer said, he looks them over and wonders if one of them will be the one to fulfill his lifelong dream to win the Kentucky Derby.

He might have found that horse in Orb, who galloped to an easy 2 3/4-length triumph in the $1 million Florida Derby Saturday at Gulfstream to establish himself as one of the favorites for the Run for the Roses on May 4.

Orb didn't look like a potential Derby horse when he came to Gulfstream this season. He had only a maiden win in four starts as a 2-year-old. But after making the Florida Derby his third straight win at Gulfstream and fourth overall, he looks like the real deal.




It isn't only Orb's dominance Saturday, with "something left in the tank," according to jockey John Velazquez. It was the way Orb allowed Velazquez to dictate tactics in the mile-and-an-eighth centerpiece of the Florida winter season.

When he won the Fountain of Youth last month, Orb dropped well back before launching his rally. In the Florida Derby, Velazquez wanted to keep him closer. "I didn't want to leave him too much to do."

Tractability is a valuable asset in the 20-horse rodeo that is the Kentucky Derby.

Orb allowed Velazquez to put him exactly where he wanted, fifth down the backstretch, but within four lengths of longshot pace-setters Merit Man and Narvaez. Itsmyluckyday, the 8-5 favorite, and Eclipse juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby raced between the leaders and Orb.

Itsmyluckyday, who had won the Gulfstream Derby and Holy Bull, made the first move going to the far turn. By the top of the stretch he had eased past the early speed, as Shanghai Bobby started to drop back. Velazquez asked Orb to move right behind Itsmyluckyday. Within a few strides of Itsmyluckyday taking over, Orb was breathing down his neck. Itsmyluckyday offered only token resistance as Orb flashed by.

All Velazquez had to do was keep Orb's mind on his business. "As soon as he passed the other horse, he started waiting." Except for that, Velazquez said, his winning margin could have been greater.

Itsmyluckyday easily held the place over Merit Man, who hung in a well beaten third.

The only slight negative on Orb's performance was his winning time, 1:50.87, which was almost two seconds slower than Dreaming of Julia took to win the filly counterpart, the Gulfstream Oaks.

Finishing at least second was important to Itsmyluckyday. The 40 points he earned under the new Kentucky Derby qualifying system assures him one of the 20 slots in the Derby starting gate. The 100 Orb took home was overkill. His spot was clinched by his score in the Fountain of Youth.

Shanghai Bobby, whose fifth-place finish added nothing to his 24 points, is probably out. It was one of the few disappointments Saturday for his trainer, Todd Pletcher, who won three stakes at Gulfstream and three more at the Fair Grounds, including the Louisiana Derby with Revolutionary.

When Orb, owned by Stuart Janney III, goes to the Derby, it might be without Velazquez. He also rides the unbeaten Verrazano, who will make his final pre-Derby start in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct next Saturday. If Verrazano makes it to Kentucky, Velazquez is committed to ride him.

McGaughey said he knew this when he put Velazquez aboard for the Fountain of Youth. "Obviously, we'd love to have Johnny but I'm absolutely not going to put any pressure on him."

Velazquez doesn't feel he will be leaving McGaughey high and dry. "After today, they'll be jumping out of the woods to get on this colt."