Kentucky Derby

John Clay: McGaughey enjoying reign after long wait

Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said of his first Derby winner, Orb, "He continually impresses me ... I think there is maybe even more there than what we're getting."
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said of his first Derby winner, Orb, "He continually impresses me ... I think there is maybe even more there than what we're getting." AP

LOUISVILLE — Shug McGaughey sat on a folding chair under a tent on the backside at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning, waiting to go on the Today show, listening via earpiece to a news report from the Syrian border.

"I don't want to be on the Syrian border, I can tell you that," McGaughey said off camera. "I'd rather be right here at Churchill Downs in the rain."

What rain?

More like liquid sunshine.

Despite the relentless precipitation, the sun still shone bright on the old Kentuckian back home one day after the most gratifying accomplishment of a Hall of Fame career.

"I'm sure when I get time I'll be able to sit down and think about just how lucky I've been," said the trainer of Orb, the winner of the 139th Kentucky Derby.

Not many yards away, however, the dark clouds hung over Todd Pletcher's barn, home of five losing Derby entrants.

Just one of his touted quintet managed to hit the board, and Revolutionary's third-place finish, it could be argued, owed more to Calvin Borel's riding skills than to training.

You couldn't help but ponder the contrast between the two trainers' styles and quest for the sport's biggest prize.

One is a horse trainer in the traditional sense.

The other is more of a manager in the modern-day sense.

Since Easy Goer's famous loss to Sunday Silence in 1989, McGaughey has entered just two horses in the Derby. He has one victory.

Since his first Derby in 2000, Pletcher has entered 36 horses in the race. He has one victory.

It's not as if McGaughey has lacked for Derby opportunities, either. After all, he trains for the Phipps family and Stuart Janney, two of the sport's hallmark names.

"I just don't like to force things," he said.

And no doubt Pletcher would argue that his Derby record is really 1-for-13, the number of years he has entered at least one horse in the race.

Still, the numbers are inarguably disappointing.

Of Pletcher's 36 entrants, only five have hit the board. Since 2007, Pletcher has run 22 horses, and only Super Saver's 2010 win and Revolutionary's third-place finish have been in the money. Both of those horses were ridden by Borel.

Take Borel out of the saddle and you have to go back to Bluegrass Cat's second-place finish in 2006 to find a Pletcher Derby horse who earned money for the bettor.

Quantity over quality hasn't panned out.

The weekend wasn't a total washout for Pletcher, who won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday with Princess of Sylmar.

Interestingly enough, Sylmar's owner, Ed Stanco, is more in the Janney-Phipps mold. Stanco races one horse at a time and has never used another trainer besides Pletcher.

The trainer indicated Sunday that none of his five Derby horses would go to Baltimore for the Preakness. Running horses two weeks back after a race isn't the Pletcher way.

Orb will be in Baltimore in two weeks, good health willing, and McGaughey reiterated Sunday that he is looking forward to the trip.

Dare we even think Triple Crown?

"If we can keep everything going the way it's going, he's going to have a chance," McGaughey said. "If we can get by the Preakness, I think he's going to be one that can get the Belmont and really cherish Belmont. That's his home and that's my home. So he's going to be comfortable and I'm going to be comfortable."

Meanwhile, back at Orb's barn, McGaughey's wife, Alison, wore a cap that said "Old School" on the front and "Shug Style" on the back as she sipped coffee outside the Derby winner's stall.

The rain pelted the roof overhead, but on this glorious Sunday morning, no one seemed to mind.

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