LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Don’t bother trying to Google the name of the Best Trainer Yet To Win the Kentucky Derby. The answer is Shug McGaughey, the guy determined to pry his name off that list Saturday at Churchill Downs.
McGaughey is 62. He will pursue the Kentucky Derby with Orb, the likely favorite.
“Obviously, whenever you’re not participating in the big races when you want to be, you kind of sit there with an empty feeling,” McGaughey said. “I’ve had that.”
McGaughey can tell you everything about the winning move that Proud Clarion made while winning the Kentucky Derby the first time he watched from the infield scrum. That was 1967. He was 16 — and helplessly hooked on horse racing.
He trained his first colt into the Derby when he was 33. He arrived with his first favorite (Easy Goer) when he was 38. Racing welcomed him into its Hall of Fame when McGaughey was 53, even though his Derby record was the same as it is today — 0 for 6.
McGaughey has been photographed in the winner’s circle of the Belmont Stakes, Florida Derby, and Hollywood Derby. Don’t forget his work in the Breeders’ Cup. Racing insiders consider his nine victories there as proof that nobody is better at reading and preparing horses, especially fillies.
“Nobody has a sixth sense about horses like Shug,” trainer David Carroll said. “He’ll be sitting there reading the paper, and then look over and tell you exactly how a horse is doing. His communication with horses is unreal.”
But McGaughey is a Kentucky native with a Bluegrass pedigree as dazzling as Mr. Prospector’s. He knows there is a gap in his resume that can only be filled by winning the mile-and-a-quarter race that will be run at 6:24 p.m. Saturday.
“How much would it mean to him?” asked McGaughey’s son, Chip. “Everything.”
“I’ve thought about it a lot of times,” McGaughey said. “It’s a big itch.”
Did McGaughey think it would be this challenging? “No,” he said.
Nobody did — not after McGaughey arrived at the Derby in 1984 with two solid colts — Pine Circle and Vanlandingham. He finished sixth and 16th. Seeking the Gold brought him back in 1988. No reason to celebrate a seventh-place finish.
A celebration seemed guaranteed 1989. McGaughey had moved to New York to train privately for the prestigious Phipps Stable. He came to Churchill Downs with Easy Goer, the precocious 2-year-old champion. There was talk that Easy Goer was The Next Great Thing.
It was a remarkable opportunity — surrounded with suffocating expectations. It showed. During the Derby buildup McGaughey barked at Carroll, Easy Goer’s exercise rider, for working the colt too fast. Skeptics looked at the odd shape of one of the colt’s feet and questioned his condition.
“There was probably some yelling and screaming,” McGaughey said.
Race day was cold, wet — and disappointing. Sunday Silence outran Easy Goer down the stretch, winning the Derby by 2½ lengths.
That was 24 year ago. Shug McGaughey has only started one other horse in the Derby — the forgettable Saarland, who finished 10th in 2002. Even on days when McGaughey won big, he felt as if he didn’t win everything, he had not won anything. That’s a fast track to race-track misery.
“I would walk out there and if I didn’t win, I felt like I was embarrassed,” McGaughey said. “Like I had failed. That I hadn’t done what I needed to do.”
Last year McGaughey saddled a horse in another stakes race here on Derby Day, but was in such a rush to return to New York City that he was stopped for speeding while racing from Louisville to Lexington to make a flight.
He watched I’ll Have Another and his trainer, Doug O’Neill, win the Derby, the race he always wanted to win, from a Mexican restaurant in Versailles, Ky. McGaughey had no clue that Orb, a late-developing 2-year-old, would bring him back this year as the favorite for Derby 139.
Like most years, McGaughey was thinking about what his stable needed to change to become more competitive in the Derby, as well as the Preakness and Belmont — and what he needed to change to let go of the bile from not winning every race.
Several years ago the Phipps and Janney stables had changed their breeding approach, trying to incorporate more stallions known for speed than stamina.
“A little bit of it has been our pedigrees,” McGaughey said. “We got to where we were trying to breed longer on the dirt so those horses wouldn’t come around as early as 2-year-olds. We were kind of behind the eight-ball a little bit getting here.
“We’ve kind of adjusted that a little bit. That’s why I say that I think that in the future we will be.”
Starting, of course, on Saturday. Orb has won his last four races, showing the trademark move of a Derby winner — the ability to stalk the leaders before taking control in the final three-eighths of a mile. He has trained spectacularly at Churchill Downs, dazzling handicappers as well as fellow trainers.
Shug McGaughey has also done an impressive job of training Shug McGaughey. He appears happier, bouncing around the Churchill backside, shaking hands, greeting visitors and answering even the difficult questions about his disappointing Derby record.
He returns to the track every afternoon and many evenings. He starts at Stall 1, Barn 43 with Orb, then he simply walks down the shed row. Instead of dread, McGaughey is celebrating the anticipation of trying to win his first Kentucky Derby, especially with a colt that needed four chances to win his first race.
“As I’ve told people the last two or three weeks,” McGaughey said, “with this thing, I’m all in.”
Just as a Hall of Fame trainer should be.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and WDRB-TV of Louisville, Ky. Rick Bozich is a columnist for WDRB.