In those drizzly and touching moments after Orb won the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, as his wonderful old trainer Shug McGaughey's face moved in slow motion from disbelief to uncertain joy to blinking tears, it was hard not to think of a single amazing statistic.
The stat: Uber trainer Todd Pletcher has entered 29 horses in the Kentucky Derby - TWENTY NINE DIFFERENT HORSES - since Shug McGaughey last tried to win the race of his dreams back in 2002.
Think about that number. Twenty-nine horses just since 2002. That's more than two a year, every year. Pletcher, in total, has had 21 horses finish in 10th place or worse in his career, this including three last place horses, two more 19th place horses and two more 18th places horses. He also has one Derby champion: Super Saver.
Shug McGaughey now also has one Derby champion.
Well, Pletcher is a new world trainer, in the line of D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito and Bob Baffert. They run big operations for big-time horse owners, and they do what they can to make those owners' dreams come true. That dream is to win the Kentucky Derby. To win the Kentucky Derby, you have to enter the Kentucky Derby. It's really simple mathematics.
There's nothing wrong with this way of doing business, of course. It's bulk. It's Wal-Mart. It's Costco. It's Target. Go big or go home.
But this is just not the way Shug McGaughey trains horses. He comes from a different world, a gentler world, a family-store world where the trainer works with the same family for 30-plus years, where the trainer never rushed into anything, where the trainer whiles away the days just watching horses drink and jog and play and sleep. "I like being around them," Shug once told Sports Illustrated's Bill Nack. "I like to watch them here, standing in the sun."
You have to understand: Nobody on earth wanted to win a Kentucky Derby more than Shug McGaughey. The dream goes so far back, he cannot even remember when it started. He was born in Kentucky. He grew up in Kentucky. The Derby is in his blood. And, perhaps even more, he trained for the Phipps family, a legendary racing family that had many triumphs and many heartbreaks and had never won the Kentucky Derby.
Oh, yes, Shug McGaughey wanted desperately to win the Kentucky Derby, more for the Phipps family, more for everyone in Kentucky, but maybe for himself too. What he did not want to do though - what he would not do - was race a horse that had little to no chance of winning. No sir. What he did not want to do - what he would not do - was race a horse that was not ready for the pounding and the noise and the crowd of 150,000 of Churchill Downs on Derby Day.
In 1989, a bountiful year, McGaughey thought he had two horses - Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring - who had a real chance to win. Both were entered. They finished second and third to Sunday Silence. That was heartbreaking. McGaughey waited 13 years before entering another horse, Saarland, in the Derby. And when Saarland finished a disappointing 10th, McGaughey felt angry at himself. He thought then that the Derby dream might never come true. He was OK with it. He did not enter another horse until . well . until this year.
And then: This magical thing happened. To McGaughey, Orb seemed to be just about the least likely Kentucky Derby candidate imaginable. Sure, he had some talent, lots of young horses have talent, but, heck, he couldn't even get out of his own way. He did not even know how to GET OUT OF THE STARTING GATE. His first race, at Saratoga last year, it began and Orb didn't seem to know it. The other horses took off, Orb just kind of stood there.
Well, yes, Orb did then run down those horses with rather starting speed and he somehow finish third. He had talent. But what's talent when you don't even know how to get out of the gate? And the next time he raced, he did the same thing. The race started, Orb did not. He finished fourth. And the next time - yep, same thing, another terrible start, another gutsy stretch run, another fourth place finish. Kentucky Derby? Are you kidding? "Furthest thing from my mind," McGaughey says, and you believe him.
Then came the Florida Derby. That was a good field. And Orb was utterly electrifying. He did not have a particularly lucky route - he was pushed way out wide again and probably ran a longer distance than any other horse in the field. But what did it matter? When he took off, well, Shug McGaughey knew: He was going to the Kentucky Derby. Orb won by almost three lengths. It was the most impressive run for a three-year-old all year. Yes, he was going to the Kentucky Derby.
Even though the experts more or less all agreed that Orb was the best horse in the field, well, Orb and McGaughey were overlooked for most of the week. The morning line put Orb as the favorite, but nobody seemed to believe it. For a long time people seemed unwilling to bet on him.
Well, hey, others had better stories. Rosie Napravnik was trying to become the first woman jockey to win a Kentucky Derby. Kevin Krigger was trying to become the first African American jockey to win a Kentucky Derby in more than 100 years. Todd Pletcher tied a record by entering five horses in the Derby (Five! One less than McGaughey had entered in the previous 30 years). Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens was coming back after seven years in retirement. Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino was part owner of a horse. And so on.
But, in the end, the smart money came in and Orb did go off as the favorite. And then he went out and ran an utterly dominant race. His jockey, Joel Rosario, said that at first he thought that maybe he had fallen too far back at the start. But when he asked for Orb to run, Orb ran, and he closed the gap in a blink, and Orb took the lead, and Orb pulled away and won by 2 « lengths.
Almost immediately, you could hear people whisper a one-word question: "Superhorse?" It's always that question after a Kentucky Derby, right? It has been 35 years since a horse won the Triple Crown. It's such a tough thing to do, to win the spectacle that is the Kentucky Derby, then two weeks later go and win the tight-cornered Preakness, then three weeks after that go and endure the seemingly endless stretch run at the Belmont.
The odds are always stacked against it. But Orb was so dominant. He seems fast enough to win the Preakness. He seems strong enough to win the Belmont. And he was so dominant. There's reason to dream.
The scene after the race was something. In that moment after Orb won, it all just seemed a little too much to Shug McGaughey. His face was a blank stare. He's 62 years old, and maybe he had convinced himself that this was never going to happen. He was OK with that too because he has been allowed to live what for him is the greatest life, a horse trainer's life. It was all he wanted.
As the victory began to dawn on him - as it started to become real - he did celebrate. He smiled. He held back tears. He hugged people. But there was something striking about the celebration, something that should tell you all you need to know about Shug McGaughey. It was unmistakable: Everyone around was happier for Shug than he was for himself. That speaks to a life well lived.