LOUISVILLE, Ky. — As the 19-horse cavalry that made up Kentucky Derby 139 entered the final turn heading toward the Churchill Downs stretch Saturday evening, a cannon crafted by one of thoroughbred racing’s great architects and housing decades of the most nurtured bloodlines began a thunderous series of explosions.
By the time the field straightened out, the most powerful piece of arsenal Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey and his longtime owners had brought to this proving ground had knocked out all but a couple remaining targets. A handful of strides later, it became clear one of the few pieces of history that had eluded the connections of the sleek, bay missile was finally going to be captured in spectacular fashion.
Nearly 30 years after he started trying to tackle the mission, McGaughey can wake up in the morning with a Kentucky Derby win on his resume. Over the same sloppy track that took down the horse who was supposed to be McGaughey’s surefire winner 24 years ago, Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney III’s homebred colt Orb rallied down the middle of the track after rating well off swift fractions to win the first leg of the Triple Crown by 2 1/2 lengths before a rain-drenched crowd of 151,616.
The sustained run Orb launched under jockey Joel Rosario to come from having three horses beat past the grandstand the first time to emphatic classic winner was as much a victory for diligence as it was a showcase of talent.
Since becoming the private trainer for the Phipps family in 1985 and, a few years after that, Janney’s main conditioner, McGaughey has trained some legends of racing — including 1989 beaten Kentucky Derby favorite Easy Goer — but no 3-year-old victors on the First Saturday in May. Though neither the Phippses nor Janney made earning their own first Derby wins a huge focus of their well-bred operations, Lexington-native McGaughey still harbored more than a burning desire to one day get that gold trophy.
In Grade I Florida Derby winner Orb, McGaughey had just his seventh Kentucky Derby starter and only his second entrant since watching his champion Easy Goer fall to Sunday Silence on a muddy track in 1989.
What he, the Phippses, and Janney also had was a horse who would ultimately put one of the best partnerships in racing in its most-celebrated winner’s circle.
“I don’t know what it will be like tomorrow when I pinch myself and figure this all out,” said McGaughey, who hadn’t saddled a Derby starter since Saarland ran 10th in 2002. “It’s a race I’ve always wanted to win. I mean, the Phippses and the Janneys have been my whole life for 20-some years now and have really given me everything I’ve got.
“To bring a day like today into all our lives is just huge, it’s a huge thrill for me.”
The reason McGaughey has long been trusted with the regal bloodlines the Phipps family has cultivated over the years is because he brings horses up “the right way” through careful, unhurried handling, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps proclaimed Saturday evening.
Exhibit A is the new leader of the 3-year-old division.
Plagued by some temperamental gate issues as a juvenile, Orb took four tries to break his maiden before finally defeating the likes of Revolutionary — who would end up a brave third in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday — at Aqueduct last Nov. 24.
When McGaughey brought the bay son of Malibu Moon to Florida for the winter, he braced himself for the fact the speed-favoring Gulfstream Park would work against the colt’s late kick. Instead, Orb shocked his outwardly cool trainer with his rapid development, winning the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes in his first try against stakes company on Feb. 23 and then taking down a heralded field in the Florida Derby by 2 1/2 lengths on March 30.
“I’ve seen some things that make me think there is more there,” McGaughey said. “What he was doing in Florida he was doing against a huge bias. Then to see what I saw today … I think we’ve got our hands on a pretty special horse.”
Sent off as the 5-1 favorite in a Derby field that included unbeaten Grade I winner Verrazano, Orb was in exceptionally special hands with Rosario.
Fresh off dominating his first full-time Keeneland Spring Meet, Rosario let Orb settle near the rear of the field after breaking from post No. 16 as Palace Malice took over as the pacesetter, carving out fractions of :22.57 and :45.33 with Verrazano sitting just off him down the backstretch.
“I know he keeps going and I see he can catch the horses in front really quick,” Rosario said. “I was perfect, where I was.”
While Oxbow was coming to Palace Malice up the inside and Normandy Invasion rallying outside around the far turn, Orb was in the midst of a huge, sweeping sustained run that launched him alongside a tiring Verrazano in third at the head of the lane.
With Rosario’s left-handed urging, Orb continued to swallow up ground, hitting the wire in 2:02.89 with 34-1 long shot Golden Soul also coming from well back to get second.
“We got beat by a great horse,” said Dallas Stewart, trainer of Golden Soul. “But we ran terrific, I’m so proud.”
Revolutionary came up for third but his four other stablemates in the race were off the board, most disappointing being Verrazano in 14th.
“He just never got the trip we hoped for,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddled Verrazano, Revolutionary, Charming Kitten, Overanalyze and Palace Malice.
Orb, meanwhile, has turned into more than anything his connections could have ever hoped. And with the Preakness Stakes looming in two weeks, they aren’t sure they have even seen everything their charge has to give.
“It’s really the culmination of horse racing,” Dinny Phipps said. “It’s absolutely wonderful.”