Shug McGaughey grew up in Lexington, Ky., the world's epicenter of thoroughbred breeding, where the Kentucky Derby is a constant obsession. At 62, 37 years into a Hall of Fame training career, it's one of the few trophies he doesn't have.
"I've never won it, so I don't know what the feeling's like," he said in a thick drawl unchanged by nearly three decades in New York. "But I'm looking forward to the day I do know what it's like, and hopefully it'll be sooner than later. I was hoping it would happen a lot earlier so I wouldn't have to worry about it anymore."
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Patience has tempered McGaughey's Derby dreams. He doesn't push hard to get there unless he feels sure the horse belongs. McGaughey has saddled six Derby starters, and only one since superstar Easy Goer was second to archrival Sunday Silence in 1989. Many handicappers believe Florida Derby winner Orb gives him his best chance since that memorable spring.
Orb is ranked behind only the undefeated Verrazano, who may not be as well suited to the Derby's grueling 1¼ miles. Orb's pedigree -- sired by Malibu Moon out of a daughter of Derby winner Unbridled -- screams distance, and he's 2-for-2 at 11/8 miles. His speed figures aren't dazzling, but his off-the-pace style and relentless finishes suggest he'll be surging late on the first Saturday in May.
Before a four-race winning streak, the last three at Gulfstream Park, Orb was 0-for-3. Slow starts in his debut at Saratoga (third) and second time out (fourth) preceded another fourth Nov. 10 at Aqueduct. He finally broke his maiden at a mile there Nov. 24. Joel Rosario rode Orb's first five races and returns for the Derby because John Velazquez jumped off to stay with Verrazano.
"He's more of a lanky, longer type of horse than some of these precociously bred types,'' McGaughey said. "It's unbelievable how much he matured over the winter. I think that Orb on his best race probably wants to run a mile and a quarter, maybe even farther.''
Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps, 72, and Stuart Janney III, 64, are longtime clients of McGaughey's. Phipps and Janney bred and co-own Orb, and these first cousins are as old school as Yale, Dinny's alma mater. The family fortune stems from the Bessemer Trust, a wealth-management firm founded by their grandfather, Henry Phipps, in 1907. Janney is its chairman, Phipps its director. Phipps chairs The Jockey Club, dedicated since 1894 to improving racing and breeding, and Janney is vice chairman.
The clan has been among racing's elite since 1926, when Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, a grandmother of Phipps and Janney, founded Wheatley Stable. Phipps' late father, Ogden, owned nine champions, including Easy Goer and unbeaten Personal Ensign. Dinny has won five Eclipse Awards. Janney's parents, Stuart Jr., and Barbara, owned the incomparable filly Ruffian. Janney's star was Coronado's Quest, who won the Wood Memorial, Haskell and Travers in 1998.
That distinguished history and financial clout helps bring immunity to Derby fever, even though no Phipps runner has won America's Race. Orb would be only the second Derby entry for Phipps and the first for Janney (Coronado's Quest skipped it because he often freaked out in front of big crowds).
"A lot of guys, it's their goal to get to the Derby, and we really don't do it that way, even though I want to get there,'' McGaughey said. "But I want the horse to take me, and it's not something where we've got to get to the Derby. The Phippses aren't built that way, and neither is Stuart Janney.''