It’s 5:30 in the morning at Churchill Downs. Two days before the Kentucky Derby. One cup of coffee finished, working on the second. Still dark. Still a racetrack. It took an old-habits-die-hard ex-trainer to get me here this early. The tourists won’t get here until 7, they think that’s when it starts, to me, it’s when it ends. I’d give up the afternoon races for the morning exercises. With two hours before my first gig, there’s one place to go.
The lights illuminate the stalls like lanterns in an alley, the first set readies, lead pony in place, Jenn Patterson – all business – moves from one task to the next, Shug McGaughey stands at the foot of his makeshift tack room, chewing on his bottom lip, observing, analyzing.
“Hey Shug, how’s it going?”
“Everything’s good. Knock on wood.”
Instantly, I sense contentment, relaxation, satisfaction – and dare I say confidence. Basically, in one line, he’s saying, ‘legs are cold, everybody ate up, stay as long as you like, nothing can rattle this pilot, this mission.’ It’s two days before McGaughey saddles his first Derby horse in 11 years, his first Derby favorite since Easy Goer so many years ago and he acts like it’s Monday morning at Payson Park.
Derby favorite Orb looks over his webbing, first stall from the tackroom. The bay colt scratches his jaw on the webbing, like he’s limbering up for a recital, then reaches over his webbing to harass a hotwalker, then Patterson, then Shug. He could have gotten any of them, but it’s just a game, like he’s saying, ‘I could if I wanted, but I don’t, so I won’t.’ Alison McGaughey unwraps a mint, ending all games, all interest.
Patterson hops on Imagining.
Shug stops them, “Hold on.” He reaches down and picks a piece of straw from a hind polo.
“OK,” he says as the duo walks down the shedrow. Orb watches them go around the corner.
Shug’s son, Chip, on a respite from America’s Best Racing, joins his father, walking to the track, at ease with his dad, sharing a moment. They don’t say much.
Point Of Entry comes next. The big, bay colt has grown up, straight up. A typical son of Dynaformer, all lines going vertical. He ambles to the track, stops along the outside rail, Patterson sitting on him like she’s sitting on a stool ordering breakfast at a diner.
They stand. We stand. A typical McGaughey set, taking its time to develop. No horse stands like a Shug McGaughey horse.
Point Of Entry peels off, gallops, walks home. Clockwork.
Scooter Dickey kids Shug about training his horse early Friday morning, “You want me to train him for you, I will. I know that’s early for you. Just tell me what you want him to do.”
Two old-timers laugh.
The barn has begun to come to life as owners, fans, gawkers loiter, waiting for the Derby favorite. Two women drop off a souvenir bag from Woodford Reserve (Point of Entry runs in their race Saturday).
McGaughey unwraps two polos from Point of Entry’s hind legs before he gets a bath.
Next set, Orb.
He’s the perfect specimen; light, athletic, smart, confident.
Alison stops me, “Hey, hold on a minute, I have something for you.” She pulls out a white baseball cap. I think, ‘Cool, an Orb hat.’ No, a Shug hat. “Old School” on the front. “Shug Style” on the back.
Does he approve this message?
“He loves it,” Alison says.
I pick up a microphone and chronicle the Oaks/Derby training segment for HRRN, the best of the crop goes past, some pulling, some moseying, some jigging, some standing. I snap a photo of Orb while he turns in to look across the infield, I put it on Twitter, with the title, “Derby winner…”
He trains just as I expected, just as I hoped. A mesmerizing ease of motion, like God is still pulling the strings.
Saturday afternoon, assistant Robbie Medina braces his arms on the outside rail in the winner’s circle as Hungry Island jogs to the start for the Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile. It’s been raining for hours, just a long, steady, pelting rain. Medina is the only one out there. The dirt track looks like a beach as you get close to the water, packed hard, with a water and sand sliding across the top of it, the horses aren’t digging in more than a half inch. The turf course looks heavy, testing, clumpy. You can start to see your breath.
“She won’t mind it,” Medina says about Hungry Island. “I don’t think Orb will mind it, it is what is for him. Point Of Entry, he won on soft last year but it wasn’t one of his better races. Shug’s going to talk to Johnny after this and see what he says.”
Hungry Island runs hard, finishes second to Stephanie’s Kitten. Shug, his khaki jacket drenched, talks to Javier Castellano about the filly, then confers with Velazquez. Trainer and jockey huddle; Johnny’s hands begin a dance, his jaws clench, his eyes widen, Shug listens.
Dave Grening asks Velazquez if he’s going to scratch, he squints and contorts his face, like we asked him to pick heads or tails, nobody can say more without words than Velazquez. It reads doubtful to me.
I ask Shug, he says he needs to talk to Mr. Phipps, he walks to the paddock, rain beating his shoulders like it’s hitting an empty highway. A few minutes later, Shug walks back out of the paddock, “I’m not running. I need to talk to the stewards.”
In the tunnel between the paddock and the track, Shug asks to borrow a phone to talk to the stewards and scratches Point Of Entry.
“Johnny just thought he’d have to put him up in the race going a mile and an eighth, if it was a mile and a quarter or further…you’d hate to look up in June and not have a horse because you ran him on this stuff.”
“What about Orb, Shug? Will he be OK in it?”
“All I can tell you is he trains good on it,” Shug says, as he and Chip begin their long, wet walk back to the barn. “You know, I came here with a favorite and it rained like this, maybe they owe me one.”
Sunday Silence and Easy Goer come to life.
Delaunay wins the ninth, Wise Dan obliges in the tenth. I begin to trudge through the mud, back to the barn to wait for the 19 horses to assemble in the mile chute.
The rain has finally relented as the fans begin to funnel back outdoors.
Mylute is the first horse to appear, then Vyjack, then the rest begin a formation. Orb tip-toes through the slop, like a water bug across a mud puddle. On the muscle in the Florida Derby, he’s edgy but OK. Once, he stops and tosses his head, Patterson and Medina look like they’re fielding a fair catch, he walks, still accepting the task.
The galosh salesman has done well, others roll up their pants, women go shoeless. The walk begins, Mylute, then the Pletcher five, Orb walks in the center of the track, a long way from the crowd cheering like they’re making up for lost time after being pent up inside the roiling caverns of Churchill Downs. They roar their approval, wave flags, hang on the outside rail. Each has a favorite, each has an opinion.
Lines Of Battle, Vyjack and Orb seem to notice the most, they look like 16-year-olds going to their first rave. The horses filter into the paddock. Orb rests in stall 16, head low, still accepting. I feel better.
My Old Kentucky Home works like an elixir as the field walks onto the track. Gary Stevens stares, reflective. Calvin Borel fiddles with the billet of his saddle. Rosie Napravnik reaches up and strokes Mylute behind his right ear, he seems to listen. Mike Smith squints into the sky. Ryan Moore tries to temper Lines Of Battle. Joel Rosario, John Velazquez, Garrett Gomez look like it’s any other day, any other race.
I squeeze into a rail spot, just to the edge of the winner’s circle. Sweet spot. My shoes look like Jim Brown’s cleats. I’m soaked to the bone. HRRN’s radio feed crackles and fizzes in my ear. I describe what I see. A man taps me on the arm, “Who’s going to win?” I say in a word, “Orb.” He shakes his head, “Palace Malice,” and unrolls the horse’s paddock name tag, long and green. I shake my head and think, “Nice souvenir, not of the winner.”
They break in the distance. The crowd reaches its crescendo, the field barrels past, so fast, so loud, a true thundering pack. I notice Orb, he’s back, way back, maybe three horses behind him. They go down the backside, my friend is yelling, “Win Palace. Win Palace. Win Palace.” I see the fractions, I know he won’t win and begin to feel better about Orb’s placement. They turn for home, I see a white cap flying on the outside, it’s got to be him. I can’t hear the call. I can’t see that it is him, I just know it’s got to be him. I begin to yell, “Come on Orb. Come on Orb. Come on Orb.” My friend is now silent. Orb flies past me, like he’s hovering across the water-packed track. Somewhere it registers that most of my trifecta and superfecta bets are in the mix, somewhere in the mix, though I don’t know the order they finished or the order I bet. I barrel under the rail as Orb crosses the wire, winning the 2013 Kentucky Derby.
I high-five Medina and search for an interview, yes, yes, I’m still at work. I see Patterson standing by herself, she looks frozen in time. Her Orb hat squeezed down to her eyebrows, she doesn’t know to run, leap, stand or cry. The satisfaction of the moment; what you had hoped, what you had envisioned, what you had dared to believe raining down in enormous clarity. We hug – wet, muddy, elated – in the middle of the Churchill Downs track.