Joe’s Top 10: Talking horses with Shug

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I think I wrote this at the beginning – these moments on my top 10 list from 2013 appear in no particular order. They’re also not meant to be some sort of year in review. They are moments, minutes, stopovers, glimpses into a year of wins, losses, happiness, sadness, magic, travel. And of sport.

So here’s the last one, with an addendum at the finish. This was fun, let’s do it again next year.

1. Conversations with Shug. When Orb was on the Kentucky Derby path, I remember thinking, “If he gets there, he’ll win,” because trainer Shug McGaughey doesn’t just go to the Derby. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. He’d have to navigate the prep season and then prove best against 20 horses at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, but McGaughey’s name next to the son of Malibu Moon carried clout.

The Hall of Fame trainer had never won the Derby. He hadn’t been in years. He talked freely of making mistakes with horses he did take. Sure, he trained quality horses with the pedigrees and abilities to warrant Derby consideration ever year, but McGaughey is patient. He thinks. He doubts. He worries. He second-guesses. He does not push.

And then, Orb won. Racing applauded an old-school victory for the trainer and his longtime employers the Phipps family and Stuart Janney III. It was that good a story.

I caught up to McGaughey at Pimlico the Tuesday of Preakness Week and could tell how much winning the Derby meant to him. A few days before the second leg of the Triple Crown, he was still talking about all the things that came with winning America’s biggest race.

It was Tuesday. Chilly. Quiet. There were three horses – all McGaughey’s – in the stakes barn and more TV trucks than TV people. Orb had worked the day before at Belmont Park and just walked at Pimlico. Assistant trainer/exercise rider Jenn Patterson took Orb a few turns, then handed the shank to McGaughey. Khaki pants, black jacket, white Orb hat and sneakers, McGaughey went back to where his (and everybody else’s) career started – hotwalker.

He joked about trying not to turn his Derby winner loose and walked a few circuits of the stakes barn. McGaughey could have been anybody, and that was the beauty of it. He handed the horse back to Patterson after a bit, then took a turn grazing the Derby winner.

After a while, with his horse in the stall, McGaughey leaned on the shedrow rail and talked. He rested his forearms, folded his hands and started in – about Orb, about the Derby, about Easy Goer, about Imagining, about Patterson, about how horses develop, about riding (and falling off) a lead pony, about a restaurant in College Park, about baseball, about Texas and fence posts and bridles and who knows what else. I’ve got pages of notes from that day, and another session two days later, and another as darkness settled in after Orb lost the Preakness.

Before the race, McGaughey marveled at his horse’s progress from 2 to 3.

“I’ve never seen a horse develop like this as a 3-year-old,” the Hall of Famer said then. “They tried to get me to (compare) with Easy Goer, but it’s two different horses. He was already champion 2-year-old. When we got going with him it was all eyes on him. This one sort of just slipped under the radar. When he ran in the Fountain of Youth, they didn’t know who he was.”

Four days before the Preakness, after a fast work at Belmont, McGaughey wondered if he’d done everything right with his horse.

“I hope I’m not coming down here too soon,” he told himself on the drive down Monday afternoon.

Tuesday, McGaughey was happy with the decision. Thursday, after an easy gallop over the Pimlico dirt, McGaughey told me “I’m in good shape, Joe, I’m in good shape.”

By Saturday morning, after a day of Black-Eyed Susan hubbub, a restless night, early (really early) training hours, and all the stress that comes with all of those things, maybe he wasn’t. The horse ran evenly in the Preakness, making one move up the rail going into the final turn, then flattening out to be fourth behind Oxbow.

By Saturday night, McGaughey was drained, tired, sad, hurt that his horse couldn’t win again. He also apologized to a few well-wishers, and thanked people for their kindness.

In a month, McGaughey and Orb would be at Fair Hill Training Center. He’d picked my brain about the place one morning at Pimlico, thought it might help some nervous fillies he had.

The Kentuckian turned New Yorker took a dozen stalls in the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center and the place became home to Orb, Imagining, Hungry Island, Tricky Hat and some others. Orb’s first work after the Belmont came at Fair Hill. Most of the horse’s preparation for the Travers came at Fair Hill. McGaughey was a regular, sort of, at the Maryland training center – walking or driving to the track and talking about the area’s amenities (equine and human).

Along the way, I got more stories, more thoughts, more questions about training horses. There’s nothing like a Hall of Fame trainer asking you what you think is wrong with a horse or what you think of this strategy or that. But that’s McGaughey. He’s a student as much as a teacher. He’s still learning, and knows it.

Phipps and Janney bought a barn at Fair Hill and McGaughey will be a full-fledged local come spring. Saturday afternoon in the snow, I drove by that empty barn. It’ll be full – of horses and stories – in April.

Honorable Mentions

The year was full of moments. I settled on 10 and I’m not sure how (still). Looking back, the ones I missed are as good as the ones I got: Princess Of Sylmar’s two wins at Saratoga . . . Imagining blasting out of his stall at Pimlico and McGaughey talking of the horse’s talent (before he became a stakes winner) . . . Demonstrative catching Divine Fortune in the Iroquois . . . Divine Fortune finally getting his Grade 1 at Far Hills . . . Mr. Hot Stuff stepping up for all Thoroughbreds in search of a second career at Saratoga . . . Eighttofasttocatch winning a second Maryland Million Classic and Tim Keefe stopping to tell me about the future star’s life as a yearling . . . Penn National’s big night when Rydilluc won the $500,000 Penn Mile . . . Paddy Young winning the last jump race of the year to snatch his fourth jockey championship . . . Charlie LoPresti talking about Turallure at Saratoga . . . Gumbo at Guillot’s . . . Roadhog running down Ben’s Cat in the Maryland Million . . . going to see steeplechase great Flatterer on Jan. 2 (a day after he turned 34) . . . seeing Saratoga Race Course in the snow . . . watching Hungry Island train in a field . . . visiting Kelso’s grave . . .