Kentucky-born-and-bred, Hall of Fame trainer Claude “Shug” McGaughey has entered only one starter in the fabled Kentucky Derby since his pupil Easy Goer pursued Sunday Silence to the wire in 1989.
Victory in the Run for the Roses remains the dream of a lifetime for the 62-year-old horseman. But when he says a colt has to “look like he belongs” before he’ll enter him, he’s not just paying lip service.
Rest assured: Orb belongs.
The blossoming 3-year-old son of Malibu Moon overhauled local favorite Itsmyluckyday in the stretch Saturday and pulled off to a 2 3/4-length victory under John Velazquez in Gulfstream Park’s $1-million Florida Derby.
The victory, worth $600,000 and 100 qualifying points toward an assured Kentucky Derby starting spot, affirmed for McGaughey what he concluded from Orb’s victorious Fountain of Youth effort Feb. 23.
“This is by far the best opportunity I’ve had since Easy Goer,” said McGaughey, who took out his trainer’s license in 1979 and collected an Eclipse Award as the nation’s leading trainer in 1988.
Stuart Janney III, who shares ownership of Orb with first cousin Ogden (Dinny) Phipps of the famed Phipps Stable, echoed McGaughey’s philosophy about tackling the world’s most famous horse race.
“Like Shug said,” he said, “you need a horse that takes you there. You don’t need to be taking the horse there” just to be there.
Itsmyluckyday picked up a runner-up check for $200,000 and 40 Kentucky Derby points for popular South Florida trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. to make his own starting-gate reservation May 4 at Churchill Downs.
“No excuses,” said the 63-year-old Plesa. “The only excuse was the [No.] 6 horse [Orb].
“… Am I disappointed? A little bit. But I’m a realist. I’ve got a horse that finished second in the Florida Derby, and I’m very proud of him.”
Itsmyluckyday would be only the second Kentucky Derby starter for Plesa, joining Three Ring in 1999.
On the flip side of racing fortunes, 2012 Breeders’ Cup juvenile champion Shanghai Bobby finished with no points in fifth place for trainer Todd Pletcher and likely will drop off the Kentucky Derby trail.
Though a major disappointment for Pletcher, it was about the only one in a day in which he celebrated three stakes victories at Gulfstream and three more at Fair Grounds.
Included was a spectacular romp in the Gulfstream Oaks by Dreaming of Julia and a Louisiana Derby victory by Revolutionary, among a handful of remaining Pletcher trainees still targeting thoroughbred racing’s historic first Saturday in May.
Verrazano, current leading Kentucky Derby contender, will run in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct next Saturday. Velazquez, whose victory on Orb was one of five for him Saturday, also will be in the irons on Verrazano.
A victory could present a difficult decision for Velazquez if both Orb and Verrazano remain healthy and run in the Derby. Should he wind up on Verrazano, he said, laughing, jockeys “will be coming out of the woods” trying to get aboard Orb.
Merit Man, the lone speed horse in a field of 10, leaped to the front in the Florida Derby and set a pedestrian pace down the backside, with Itsmyluckyday and Orb biding their time fourth and fifth.
Velazquez said he saw Itsmyluckyday as the primary threat, as did McGaughey. “When he moved, we moved with him,” McGaughey said. “When we turned for home … I thought we probably had him.”
Itsmyluckyday, with Elvis Trujillo up, nosed past Merit Man at the top of the stretch but he couldn’t fend off Orb’s charge.
Orb covered the mile and one-eighth in 1 minute 50.87 seconds and paid $7.80 to win as third betting choice to favored Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby.
McGaughey’s lone Kentucky Derby starter since Easy Goer was Saarland in 2002. He finished 10th.
“We’ve never pressed to try to get there,” he said. “When the 2-year-olds come in each year, I wonder if one of them will take us to the Derby where we will have an opportunity to win.”
He didn’t feel that way about Orb when he finished third in his 2-year-old debut at Saratoga last August or in two subsequent fourths before he broke his maiden at Aqueduct in November.
But victory in the Fountain of Youth gave him hope. What Orb did Saturday, staking McGaughey to his first Florida Derby, magnified that hope.
McGaughey clearly has Derby fever, but it’s warranted.