A year ago at this time, the Kentucky Derby was the furthest thing on Shug McGaughey’s mind.
There wasn’t a horse in McGaughey’s barn that looked or acted the part.
“There were no Derby thoughts at all,” McGaughey said.
Three months later, the Hall of Fame trainer and native Kentuckian was standing in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, positioning a blanket of roses on Orb.
The colt — a no-name in January — emerged from the shadows of obscurity to give McGaughey his first victory in the country’s most fabled thoroughbred race.
“That’s what happened to him,” McGaughey said of Orb’s transformation from a nice horse to a great one in the brief span of a few months. “From the first of January on he made strides. Everything’s pretty much all got to go right to get to the Derby, and everything went right with him.”
McGaughey, one of the most respected horsemen in the sport, is hoping Orb’s Derby success wasn’t a one-time occurrence. The trainer is taking aim on the Roses once again with not one but three top contenders: Honor Code, Top Billing and Mr. Speaker.
The latter two will hit the track Saturday at Gulfstream Park to contest what McGaughey hopes to be another successful charge to the Derby. First, he will saddle Top Billing in an allowance race for 3-year-olds. Later in the afternoon, he’ll send out Mr. Speaker in the $400,000 Holy Bull Stakes, the first of several major races for 3-year-old Derby prospects during the Gulfstream meet.
“This is as compelling a Holy Bull as I can remember,” said Mike Welsch, veteran writer, clocker and handicapper for The Daily Racing Form.
In addition to Mr. Speaker, the 1 1/16-mile stakes includes a handful of horses with Triple Crown race potential. Cairo Prince is the 3-1 favorite on the morning line to prevail but is far from a sure thing. Wicked Strong, Coup de Grace, Financial Mogul and Intense Holiday are also highly regarded.
Mr. Speaker heads into the Holy Bull off back-to-back wins in a pair of grass races, including the Dania Beach Handicap at Gulfstream in December. McGaughey will be trying him for the first time on dirt.
“Mr. Speaker is a very mature horse,” McGaughey said. “He’s extremely athletic and a good-looking horse. If he takes his turf form to the dirt, he could be a pretty serious horse.”
Cairo Prince will be making his 2014 racing debut. The Holy Bull marks his first start since a nose loss to Honor Code — perhaps McGaughey's top 3-year-old — in the Grade II Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in November.
McGaughey is pointing Honor Code for the Fountain of Youth Stakes, the final prep for the Florida Derby, which is traditionally a final launching pad for 3-year-olds bound for the Kentucky Derby.
But, as McGaughey discovered first-hand last year, horses that sit atop the rankings in January often aren’t the same ones who head the pack when the Triple Crown races roll around a few months later.
“Sometimes a horse’s best year is as a 2-year-old,” McGaughey said. “They never get any better.”
And oftentimes the late-bloomers, like Orb, end up wearing roses.
“We’ve seen that happen a lot,” Welsch said. “You never know where the top 3-year-olds will come from. But I would say most likely it will be out of here [South Florida]. History has proven that, more often than not, the best ones are coming out of here.”