(Originally published in the May 11, 2013 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Eric Mitchell - @BH_EMitchell on Twitter
Trainer Shug McGaughey is pacing the shedrow of Barn 43.
Fifteen dragging minutes to go before contenders for the 139th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) are required to assemble at the gap at Churchill Downs' mile chute and make the walkover to the paddock.
Standing patiently in stall 1 is Orb, a classic-looking son of Malibu Moon, who represents McGaughey’s best chance since 1989 to win America’s biggest race. That year he brought Ogden Phipps’ homebred juvenile champion and Wood Memorial Invitational Stakes (gr. I) winner Easy Goer to Louisville.
As the minutes crawl by, McGaughey mulls some unpleasant parallels between the Derby in front of him and the trip in 1989 when Easy Goer, co-favorite with stablemate Awe Inspiring, finished second to Sunday Silence. Easy Goer's rider Pat Day said afterward he felt the footing played a big role in the loss. Though not as cold as it was 24 years ago, an all-day rain has been soaking Churchill Downs since 10 a.m., turning the main track to slop.
"It did come to mind several times," the Hall of Fame trainer would say later. "A day like today might have cost me one Kentucky Derby; maybe it will turn around and help us today. I've come to the Derby two times with what I thought were great, big chances and it rained both times."
The drizzle stops about a half-hour before post time, but the damage has been done. Adding to the gloom, McGaughey had to scratch top turf runner Point of Entry earlier in the day from the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (gr. IT), short-circuiting a highly anticipated showdown with reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan.
Rain. Scratches. Slop. Despite how good everything has gone since Orb arrived in Louisville, the events of the day allow doubts to seep in.
The minutes before the walkover creep, and the weight of the moment is squeezing the conversation out of everyone—McGaughey, his sons Reeve and Chip, exercise rider Jenn Patterson, and assistant trainer Robbie Medina.
McGaughey can't keep still. He stops in front of Orb’s stall for a moment without saying a word, then takes another walk down the shedrow. The colt has done nothing but thrive since shipping to Churchill Downs April 21. Some who watched Orb unload said he looked like he had been bronzed, he looked so good. But McGaughey, 34 years into his training career, has been here before and knows the Derby is a quest fraught with unpredictability.
There is nothing left to do but wait. The miles have been put in and the preps that put Orb here--victories in the Besilu Stables Fountain of Youth (gr. II) and Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I)—have stamped him as the legitimate favorite, which carries its own burden. Just ask Eddie and Laurie Plesa, whose Derby contender Itsmyluckyday was christened an early favorite after beating Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III).
"I've never felt the pressure that I felt going into the Florida Derby," Laurie Plesa said a few days before the Kentucky Derby. "It didn't stop."
A couple of distractions break up the tension—and the waiting. NBC correspondent Kenny Rice does a short interview with McGaughey. Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron stops by to introduce a few people. The Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy who has been guarding McGaughey's barn stops by, too, and offers his best wishes. McGaughey shakes his hand and thanks him for the long hours he’s logged all week.
"You're a class act. Good luck," the deputy tells McGaughey.
At last, the time has come. Patterson puts Orb’s bridle on him and fits a halter over it for the walkover. Medina asks McGaughey if they should put a blanket over Orb.
“Wouldn’t hurt,” the trainer says and a white blanket with red trim is draped across the bay colt’s back in the shedrow. The colt is calm, poised, and ready.
McGaughey gives a once-over to everyone and everything.
"It's time. Let's go," he says.
A couple of hours later a visibly relieved McGaughey is asked how winning the Kentucky Derby will change his life.
"The way it is going to change my life is that I’m not going to have to worry about it anymore," he says. "I've worried about it for awhile. I might not have let anyone know that, but that thought was always there."
And Or'’s chances in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I)?
"To tell you the truth, I can't wait," McGaughey says.