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LOUISVILLE — Shug McGaughey watched the Kentucky Derby on a beaten-up television set on a 10-second delay in a tiny room with no view of the Churchill Downs track.
McGaughey had been waiting 62 years to win the race of a lifetime.
What difference would another 10 seconds make? He was tucked away in the old track superintendent’s office, away from the beautiful people preening for the national TV cameras.
That’s the McGaughey Hall of Fame, Bluegrass-pedigree. He only shows up when he has a serious 3-year-old. And McGaughey has never been as serious about a Derby horse as he has been with Orb.
So as Orb started his thunderous winning move in Derby 139, McGaughey stood with his arms crossed, quietly fixed on the TV. He was surrounded by his wife, Alison, and sons, Chip and Reeve.
“He didn’t say much,” Chip McGaughey said. “My brother and I were the only ones yelling. This was something he always wanted, but he’s always kept it cool.”
It wasn’t long until all 151,616 racing fans stuffed into Churchill Downs were yelling right along with the McGaugheys.
Tucked in 17th place (ahead of two horses) with a half-mile to run, Orb and jockey Joel Rosario started running down horses like an unblocked linebacker.
“I did get a little bit kind of antsy there for a minute,” Shug McGaughey said. “But he kind of made up for that.”
The colt and his jockey Rosario passed a dozen horses before they got the quarter pole — and then the serious running began. Verrazano, Palace Malice, and Oxbow could stay in front of him. Neither could the determined Normandy Invasion.
The only things ahead of him were the wire — and history.
“And you’re wanting that finish line to come,” McGaughey said.
Surging from the center of the track, Orb drew away at the wire to win the Kentucky Derby by 2½ lengths. The Derby Gods forced McGaughey to wait a lifetime for this moment, but when they finally rewarded him, they packaged the glorious moment with just the right serving of irony: It was precisely the same margin McGaughey lost by on a similarly wet and gray day with the favored Easy Goer in 1989.
McGaughey pulled his wife and sons together in one prolonged hug, but still didn’t say a word. The tears rolling down both cheeks told the story for him.
“I’m not going to have to worry about [winning the Derby] anymore because I have worried about it for awhile,” McGaughey said. “I might not let anybody know that, but inside that thought was always there. Like I said, it’s a huge thrill for me.”
“It didn’t feel real,” Chip McGaughey said.
It was real, all right, because Orb showed all winter and spring he was the most formidable in the field. He won an allowance race in January at Gulfstream Park in South Florida and then in February scored in the Fountain of Youth.
His come-from-behind in the Florida Derby announced he was a legitimate threat. But even though the colt had won his last four races and trained spectacularly all week, some were suspicious of his credentials.
Maybe it was McGaughey’s 0-for-6 record in the Derby. Maybe it was the slow closing fractions in the Florida Derby. Orb hung at 7-to-1 on the mutual board for most of Derby day, the third betting choice behind Revolutionary and Goldencents. He didn’t become the favorite, 5.4-to-1, until minutes before the starting gate flew open. Then Orb ran the way a Kentucky Derby favorite is supposed to run.
The Block News Alliance consists of the Post-Gazette, The Blade, and TV station WDRB in Louisville. Rick Bozich is a columnist for WDRB.