Still in the Orb

- -

“It’s nice to see you back, um, well you never went anywhere…you just weren’t, um…”

It began as a statement, became a retraction and was verging on an apology, until Shug McGaughey came to the rescue.

“I know what you’re saying, it slowed down for a while,” the Hall of Fame trainer said. “That wasn’t fun. This is fun.”

McGaughey has won 16 races from 66 starts this year for over $1.8 million (he’s sent out less starters than any trainer on the top 30 earner’s list). Last year, he won 49 races for $6.2 million and engineered three Grade I wins from Point Of Entry. In 2011, he won 50 races but for half that amount. He languished (hey, it’s all relative) in 2010, winning 40 races for $2.3 million, his lowest earnings since 1986, his first year training for the Phipps Stable. For McGaughey, the 2010 and 2011 seasons were slow, as he said, not fun. With the likes of Derby contender Orb and leading turf horse Point Of Entry, things are fast again, fun again.

Earlier this month, McGaughey shipped 16 horses to Keeneland for the spring meet and had a moment to stop and think about his stable. 

“It’s fun to be around them,” McGaughey said. “We’ve got 16 here at Keeneland, they’re nice horses, even the maidens we’re excited about, it’s been fun for me to look at 16, you’re not looking at 40, I’ve had a good time doing it.”

With one card remaining at Keeneland, McGaughey’s stable had produced five wins from 16 starters, including debut winner Developer Thursday.

“I’m enjoying it, with the people I’m enjoying it with,” McGaughey said. “They’re enthusiastic, they’re wanting things to happen, they’re working hard.”

Orb has led the McGaughey float this year, going from an Aqueduct maiden winner in November to the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby winner by March. Owned and bred by Stuart Janney III and the Phipps Stable, the son of Malibu Moon has won four in a row.

In McGaughey’s mind, Orb passed every test in his Florida Derby.

1. He was nervous in the post parade, but still ran his race.

“He was excellent saddling him, in fact, I asked Jen (Patterson) if he was too quiet. She said he was fine. When he got to the walking ring, as he did in the Fountain of Youth, he got on his toes. It’s something that’s going to be part of him. Now, if he didn’t run his race, I would be even more concerned. He never showed me he’s a kind of horse that’s fretting what he’s doing. It’s just a way for him to get on his toes, feeling good in the paddock, being a warm day, with his pedigree, it’s something we’re just going to have to live with.”

2. He listened to jockey John Velazquez when asked to sit closer than usual.

“I knew going in what Johnny was going to do, he was afraid there wasn’t enough speed in there so he was going to get him out of the gate and get him in some kind of position to win. Once they settled going down the backside, I liked what I saw. When he made that run into the turn and didn’t go on, I was concerned that we had made a mistake, then when Johnny came back and told me that, openly, I wasn’t concerned.

3. He switched on and off at will.

“He looked like he flattened out in the middle of the turn, that concerned me. But Johnny said that was him, he said he jumped in the bridle himself and Johnny steadied him. That really made me feel good, knowing that maybe he’s got more than one gear.”

4. He ran the way he had trained.

“Sitting there before the race, I watched it on TV in the tunnel, I was just thinking to myself, ‘This horse has trained so good since the Fountain of Youth, it’ll be interesting to see if he runs that way or doesn’t run that.’ I thought he ran that way.”

5. The race didn’t take much out of him.

“He came out of the race really well, it looks like all systems are go. I’m hoping I can hold what I got. If he doesn’t move forward and he doesn’t move backward, then I think we can be competitive. I think he’ll go forward.”

Now, that would be fun.