VIENNA, Va. May 8, 2013 – The Kentucky Derby was quite a race, all things considered. Orb came out of virtually nowhere, picked his way carefully through the pack, and at the end wound up with the blanket of roses. Some would say it was luck; others attribute it to an old-fashioned style of training horses, and they both just may be correct.
Orb’s Derby win was a picture of strength and wit on a muddy, mucky track, and it remains to be seen if he can bring those same attributes into the Preakness in a couple of weeks, when the second jewel of the Triple Crown is run.
Cookie Cutter Horses
History is full of horses bought for exorbitant sums because of their breeding and background, and then turned over to a trainer to “turn into a race horse.”
And upon occasions, it works. The horse is trained, schooled, taught to be a racehorse, an automaton. It’s almost as though the horse itself is made to fit an algorithm where breeding and background and size is shot into a mold and out comes Horse No. 385, guaranteed to turn heads and win money. This pleases a lot of big stable owners, who are primarily interested in a large number of horses, running a high number of races, keeping the funds coming in and making investors happy.
If you saw the movie based on Laura Hillebrand’s excellent book “Seabiscuit,” you saw a different kind of training. That trainer took what appeared to be a second rate horse, one with a weird gait, whose legs were almost knock-kneed and who didn’t seem to have a future. He lost something like 14 races his first year, 12 his second.
An Old-timer Worked His Magic
Then Seabiscuit was turned over to an old-time trainer, Tom Smith, rather than be run and run and raced and worked on. Instead, he was allowed to “simply be a horse,” as Hillebrand said. Rather than eating all the time and sleeping when he wasn’t eating, Seabiscuit was introduced to a lower-key type of training, under which he blossomed. The rest is history. The knock knees evolved into more characteristically straight, firm legs, the better to carry his rider. His attitude shone like light. And when he set out to run, those around him had better get out of his way.
When you look down the list of current active trainers, one stands out as indicative of the old-time method, Claude R. McGaughey, III, popularly known as Shug. Born and raised in Lexington, Ky., Shug is one of those old-timers who appear to have a combination of bluegrass in his veins and limestone in his system. He trained Orb with a degree of old-time patience, a characteristic hard to find in today’s fast paced world.
Breaking Orb’s Bad Habit
Shug watched Orb and watched him some more. And he liked what he saw. Granted, it took him four tries to break his maiden, finishing third in a maiden special weight race, and then fourth in another similar race at Belmont. The next race was another fourth, until his win on November 24, 2012 at Aqueduct Racetrack. To be honest, it looked like the horse didn’t know how to leave the starting gate as he always hesitated.
The breeding is there, though it hasn’t been mentioned much: his great grandsire was Seattle Slew (Triple Crown winner in 1977); his grandsire on his sire’s side was Unbridled (Derby winner in 1990) and his grandsire on his dam’s side was A. P. Indy, (son of Seattle Slew). What’s not to like?
McGaughey is one of those trainers who does not just grab a horse each year and enter it in the Derby. He waits and waits until the time comes when he looks at a particular horse several times, watches him mature, looks at the figures, and finally sets out for the Downs. And this time he had a young man from the Dominican Republic, Joel (pronounced Jo-El) Rosario to ride him. Again, the match was there.
“I Ran an Honest Stable”
Interestingly enough when asked what he hoped his legacy to racing would be, Shug answered, “What I want to be remembered for is that I was honest. For people to say, “He [Shug] ran an honest stable.” That pretty well sums it up as well as his honest way with his special horses.
Not too bad for a guy who dropped out of his junior year at University of Mississippi to keep his job with trader David Carr. He has been with the Phipps and Janney families for 27 years now and it has been a good fit.
If Orb can handle the 1-1/4 mile Derby easily, there is no reason he should not do as well in the 1-3/16 mile Preakness at Pimlico. The Belmont course is a 1-1/2 course, and that could make the difference. Otherwise we may see our first Triple Crown since 1978. The 2004 Hall of Famer trainer certainly hopes that is the case.
Shug is married to his lovely wife Allison and has two sons: Claude R. McGaughey IV and John Reeve McGaughey. He has homes at North Miami Beach, Fla. and in New York when he’s not back in Lexington, Ky.
At the Preakness, Shug will face some of the same horses he beat in the Derby. Oxbow, Will Take Charge and Goldencents have already been slated for the Preakness, according to their owners. Several others are on the fence as well as some new entries that did not run in the Derby are in consideration.
But as for Orb, he has already shipped out to Elmont, N.Y., where he will settle down for the Belmont Stakes. A few days before the Preakness, he’ll come down to Baltimore to see if the old-timer’s magic works again for him.
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