Go down the list of Kentucky Derby-winning trainers the past three decades or so and you’ll find at least one of nearly every kind: Insiders, outliers, organization men and fast-buck artists, even guys in on a wing and a prayer.
Nine of them have gone on to win the Preakness and vie for a Triple Crown since Affirmed won the last one in 1978. None has delivered.
But now comes a different character – the throwback.
This afternoon, if Orb is near the top of his game and this fanciful, back-to-the-future tale is still intact, it will finally be Shug McGaughey’s turn to go for horse racing’s biggest prize. Not that he’s about to get ahead of himself.
“Freaky things can happen,” McGaughey said Friday, alongside his barn at Pimlico Race Course. “You hope he doesn’t get in any trouble, you hope he handles the track, you hope he handles the kickback of the dirt, you hope he handles the day.
“If he does all that,” he added, “I would have to think it will take a pretty darned good horse to beat him.”
That last part summarizes how McGaughey, 62, and his old-school owners still approach every race. He rarely shows up on a whim, without a fit horse and a solid chance to win.
That’s why the Kentucky native patiently built a Hall of Fame career, yet went 11 years between appearances at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May – the one race he wanted to win most. It is both a luxury and a curse of working for racing royalty.
Orb is co-owned by Ogden Mills Phipps and his first cousin, Stuart Janney, scions of old-money families who got into the business long ago and still breed horses for the long haul instead of the next paycheck. They can afford to be patient.
“Shug is in a situation where he doesn’t have to go to the sales or deal with a lot of people. That’s maybe the best thing about being a ‘private trainer,’” said Bob Baffert, who should know. He parlayed success at dusty quarter-horse tracks in the 1980s into a host of Triple Crown wins throughout the 1990s and early 2000s and built one of the sport’s larger training operations.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s not a 7-day-a-week job, or there’s a lack of people you answer to. That’s the same whether you train 20 horses or 200.
“He’s good enough to be successful doing it either way. The funny thing,” Baffert added, “is that if he ran a public stable, he probably would have plenty more chances to win the three big ones.”
McGaughey will return to Pimlico for the first time since Easy Goer’s heartbreaking loss to Sunday Silence in 1989.
McGaughey, though, has never looked back. After an apprenticeship spent hauling feed, mucking stalls and grooming horses, he got his training license the year after Affirmed capped the sport’s last golden age with the third Triple of the decade. McGaughey launched his career on the tough New York racing circuit and did well enough to draw the attention of the Phipps Stable where, at the tender age of 35, he was put in charge of the training operation. One writer compared it to being named the manager of the Yankees, “akin to pinstripes in the racing world.”
Yet a few minutes around McGaughey is enough time to learn what the Phipps liked about him from the start. The same qualities that make him a good horseman are why he’s also one of the more popular members of the fraternity.
McGaughey is as low-key as his owners are loaded, and loyal to a fault. The bargain he struck was the chance to live the life he wanted most – up early at the barns and basking in the sunshine, endlessly looking for, and still learning, what makes a horse go. McGaughey has much of the same staff he began with nearly 30 years ago, and is as comfortable in their company as he is among family members.
“When I was first starting out in the business,” McGaughey told Sports Illustrated recently, “people would come to me and ask if I wanted to train some of their horses, and I’d tell them, ‘If you’re looking for somebody to have lunch with you, don’t hire me.’ I like to spend a lot of time at the barn.”
McGaughey has handled the attention like an old pro. Nothing knocks the smile off his face, not even barbs about his syrupy Southern drawl or being short enough to give his jockey instructions eye-to-eye.
“I got the barn next door and you can just tell by his face, it’s one of those ‘I-never-thought-it was-going-to be-like-this’ expressions. He’s just floating,” said Baffert, who took three separate shots at a Triple Crown between 1997 and 2002. “I think everything is meant to be, and there needed to be a Derby with his name (at) the center of attention. Now there is. ...
“That was a very popular win,” he added a moment later. “Shug always does right by his horses. He represents what racing was like back in the day. And how cool would it be if the guy that finally gets (the Triple Crown), does it the old-school way?”