Shug McGaughey and Raymond Floyd hit their tee shots at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island and walked up the first fairway. Floyd, winner of the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship and a World Golf Hall of Famer, wanted to know what winning the Kentucky Derby felt like. Did it live up to the billing? The hype? The pressure?
McGaughey answered, but made a roundabout point – like only he can.
“I’m going to ask you a question,” he said to his friend Floyd. “When you were a kid growing up playing golf, in your practices and stuff, did you dream about winning the Masters?”
Floyd, of course, responded that every practice putt or chip he took came with a “This is to win The Masters” challenge.
“When you did win it, was it close?” McGaughey asked.
And Floyd understood what winning the 2013 Kentucky Derby felt like to a Kentuckian, a lifelong horseman, a Hall of Fame trainer.
“I had absolutely no idea how big a Derby win would be,” McGaughey said last week at Fair Hill. “I had no idea. All of us have thought about it, dreamed about it and I dreamed about winning a Derby. You put yourself in the position and think about it . . . Wasn’t even close.”
Way back in May, Orb delivered that feeling to his trainer by charging through, between and around 18 rivals to win America’s horse race. Six months later, the ride ended as McGaughey and owners Stuart Janney and Dinny Phipps announced Orb’s retirement. McGaughey and Janney cited economics, business, timing, pretty much anything other than their horse’s health – he’s fit, sound, in the best shape of his life by all accounts – as reasons for calling it a career. Orb won’t make a planned start in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct later this month. He’s already at the place of his birth, Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, learning about life on the farm and preparing to stand his first season at stud for $25,000 live foal.
McGaughey would have liked another chance with the bay son of Malibu Moon. Janney called the decision bittersweet. Pretty much anybody else will also miss the athletic Kentucky-bred on the track and lament a career that ended too soon.
“Yes, I have melancholy thoughts,” said Janney. “There are going to be some big races next year and I’m going to say I wish we were in them.”
“Obviously, as the trainer I’d like to have kept him in training,” said McGaughey. “I would have liked to see him come back and have a good year.”
But for Janney and McGaughey, the decision was also relatively comfortable.
“It’s somewhat tempered by the fact that I’m in the breeding business and I love that part of it,” said Janney. “I can get pretty excited about making Orb and (another recent retiree) Data Link into great sires. That’s the next mission for me. If you’re just in the racing side of things, when you send a horse off to stud it really is goodbye. For me, it’s not.”
“You might as well take advantage of the value that’s out there at the time,” said McGaughey. “If something were to happen next year, and he got hurt or didn’t have a good year, then we didn’t make the right decision for him or for anybody. People called me and said they were so sorry to hear he’d been retired. So sorry? Really? It’s not like we’re sending him to be put down or something. He’s going to get a nice home, he’ll get a good book of mares. In that respect I’m happy.”
In another respect – the one that involves preparing horses to race and proving their abilities on the track – McGaughey’s not happy, not satisfied, with the way it all ended. After taking four starts to break his maiden as a 2-year-old, Orb bloomed over the winter. He won an allowance race in late January, the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth in February, the Grade 1 Florida Derby in March, then the Kentucky Derby. Even with a resume that includes nine champions, McGaughey was surprised at the horse’s development between 2 and 3. Based mainly at Payson Park training center, and in the care of assistant/exercise rider Jenn Patterson, Orb flourished as the races got tougher.
The Derby was the toughest, and Orb thrived – rallying into a fast pace through the mud and kicking clear late to reward Phipps, Janney and McGaughey with their first win in the historic race.
That turned out to be Orb’s last victory as he finished fourth in the Preakness, third in the Belmont, third again in the Travers and a dull eighth in the Jockey Club Gold Cup – his last start.
McGaughey won’t question his horse’s ability, but will think about the rest. “I’m not satisfied with the job that was done by me from the Derby until . . . until now,” he said.
Orb was meant to get one more chance in 2013, and McGaughey targeted the Cigar Mile Nov. 30. The starting gate for the Grade 1 could include Groupie Doll, Goldencents, Alpha, Verrazano, Capo Bastone and others. Orb would have made an interesting addition. He worked three times after the Gold Cup, including a strong 5 furlongs in 59.12 seconds at Belmont Park Oct. 27. Janney and McGaughey knew the Gold Cup wasn’t the Orb they knew, and the men expected an improved effort.
They also discussed 2014, and McGaughey made a gameplan that included spring starts in the Oaklawn Park Handicap, the Stephen Foster, then on to Saratoga for the Whitney. Like all Thoroughbred owners at his level, Janney did some math and consulted experts. The reality was Orb’s stallion value was not going to increase all that much if he won the Cigar Mile and/or had a strong next season. That value could, however, decrease if things didn’t go well.
“From an economic point of view, the risk/reward is not what you’d like,” said Janney. “I was pretty optimistic that he would have had a really good 4-year-old year, but a the end of the day it was going to be tough to bring him back. If everything went right, we were looking at a 10-percent upside if he had a good year and a 40-percent downside if he didn’t.”
Despite liking what he saw in his barn, McGaughey saw the future too.
“It was November the first and we were here,” he said while raising his hand to eye level. Then he lowered his hand to his knee and said, “I didn’t want to look up July the first and be here.”
And he wasn’t just talking about money. McGaughey meant his horse’s health, condition, reputation.
“I am glad the horse looked so good when he left,” he said. “If I had run him seven or eight times next year and he went home in November, he wasn’t going to look that good He absolutely did look a picture. We were going through this whole process and I was back there one afternoon and took it in. I was very pleased.”
Syndicated into 40 shares, Orb will get plenty of support from his owners who each kept eight shares. Janney plans to breed Quiet Harbor and Scanning to the Derby winner. The former won a stakes and is a half-sister to stakes winners Hunting and Seal Cove. Scanning was retired after three starts, but is a half-sister to Data Link.
In addition to Orb, the stable said goodbye to stalwarts Point Of Entry, Boisterous, Data Link and Hymn Book this year. Combined, they won 41 races and earned $8.2 million.
Orb and Data Link go to Claiborne as stallions.
Point Of Entry goes to Adena Springs as a stallion.
Boisterous sold for $350,000 at Keeneland November as a stallion/racing prospect.
Hymn Book just took his first steps toward being a lead pony at Fair Hill.
The trainer called each a big blow, but seems as excited about Hymn Book’s future as Orb’s.
“I said we were going to run him through this year and that was it,” he said of the Grade 1-winning gelding. “I was not going to take one chance and have something happen to him as an 8-year-old. He’s $3,000 or something away from making a million dollars, but he’s going to be a pony and if he doesn’t make a pony, he’ll always have a home.”
Look for McGaughey, maybe even Janney, on the son of Arch next spring at Fair Hill.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Janney. “He’s a neat horse, an absolutely fabulous horse and if everybody had lots of Hymn Books in their stables this business would be incredibly popular.”
As for McGaughey, he’ll turn his attentions to the rest of his stable. The lineup at Belmont Park and Fair Hill includes top 2-year-old Honor Code for owners Lane’s End Farm and Dell Ridge Farm. The trainer called him “an unusually talented horse,” and aims the son of A.P. Indy at the $400,000 Remsen at Aqueduct Nov. 30. Then there’s turf stakes horse Imagining, a player in Saturday’s Red Smith Handicap, distance specialist Tricky Hat, who’s aiming for Woodbine’s season-ending Valedictory Stakes Dec. 15 and plenty of others with pedigree and promise. The horses will ship to Florida early next month and set up camps at Gulfstream Park and Payson Park. Next spring, they’ll move into a new barn at Fair Hill – who knows? – maybe there’s another try at the Derby someday.
And McGaughey knows all about that, now.
“If I ever get in that position again, I might handle it a bit differently – I’m not going to tell you how,” he said. “But I would love to have the opportunity to do it again, and I think we will.”