05/05/2013 5:32PM

Andrew Beyer: Orb's Kentucky Derby was a victory for the old school

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Shug McGaughey in the winner's circle after Orb's decisive victory in the Kentucky Derby. The trainer's patient handling of the colt was a critical factor in getting him to peak for the race.

Score one for the old school.

Orb’s stretch-running victory in the 139th Kentucky Derby was not only trainer Shug McGaughey’s first success in the race, but also a vindication of a philosophy that today seems almost quaint. Whenever the Hall of Famer was asked why he had come to the Derby for only the second time since 1989, he never said that this is the race that every trainer aspires to win. His answer was always on the lines of, “The horse brought me here.”

Casual fans watching the NBC telecast might barely have known who McGaughey is, because he’s not part of the cast of characters (Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Nick Zito) who regularly populate the Triple Crown races. Yet people within the industry look on him with a respect that borders on reverence. When a TV interviewer collared Doug O’Neill, trainer of Goldencents, immediately after Saturday’s race, he promptly said: “Hats off to Shug! He’s so worthy, he’s such an unbelievable trainer, he’s so patient. He doesn’t bring ’em over here unless they’re ready.”

[DRF LIVE AT THE KENTUCKY DERBY: News updates, photos, videos]

While all trainers recognize and talk about the importance of patience, few trainers exhibit it, especially when the Derby is concerned. They used to. The late Charlie Whittingham operated the most powerful stable in the West for decades, but he didn’t take a horse to the Derby for 26 years until he won with Ferdinand in 1986.

It was Wayne Lukas who changed the way the game is played. He recognized that the way to build his reputation and attract owners was to win the most high-profile races, particularly the 3-year-old classics. Every year he was a general masterminding an all-out assault on the Derby, and he threw his troops into battle knowing they would have to sustain casualties in the pursuit of his objective. Lukas became the most famous and successful trainer in the United States, and his obsession with the Derby became the norm.

[Kentucky Derby: Orb delivers for Phipps, Janney]

The old school believes a trainer should not manage a horse to fulfill the personal ambitions of the owner or trainer. The old school believes a trainer should be guided by the development and the capabilities of the animal. The old school believes judicious handling will eventually bring rewards.

McGaughey elaborated on the philosophy at the post-Derby news conference. “I like to be at the barn, I like to watch horses, and if they’re not doing exactly what I want them to do, I don’t run them,” he said. “If you force a horse into a race and make a mistake, it’s a big mistake. There’s always another race down the road.”

McGaughey subordinated his personal desires to this philosophy. He is a native of Kentucky, so the Derby is in his blood, and his failure to win the race was a significant hole in his otherwise illustrious résumé. He might have seemed indifferent to the Derby, but he was burning to win it. “I always wanted to be in the Derby — if I had the right horse,” he said. “And this year I had the right horse.”

Orb had lost the first three starts of his career, but when the colt went to Florida this winter, McGaughey witnessed a transformation. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing day in and day out,” he said. Yet even after Orb won the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream — a performance that would have put most trainers’ 3-year-olds on the fast track to Louisville — McGaughey wasn’t thinking about going to Churchill Downs. It took Orb’s victory in the Florida Derby to convince him.

Orb’s steady development continued when he got to Kentucky. Daily Racing Form clocker Mike Welsch, among others, raved almost daily about how good Orb looked and acted. It was the classic McGaughey pattern. Because of the trainer’s patient management , his horses get better over time. And Orb was at his very best on Saturday, scoring an authoritative 21/2-length victory.

Is he a great horse? Is he the next Triple Crown winner? It is difficult to make a definitive judgment on the basis of the Derby. A sloppy track muddies any post-race analysis because it is impossible to know if a horse has run well or poorly because of an affinity or a dislike for the surface. For those of us who rely on speed figures to assess horses, the off-and-on rain in Louisville caused the track to change during the day and made any calculations difficult. However, I am reasonably confident in the accuracy of Orb’s Beyer Speed Figure of 104, which is better than I’ll Have Another and Animal Kingdom earned in the last two years but still below the historical average for the Derby.

The Derby was affected not only by the weather but by the way the early part of the race was run. When Palace Malice unexpectedly shot to a big lead and rocketed the first six furlongs in 1:09.80, the pace was what NBC commentator Randy Moss described as “radioactive.” Every horse near Palace Malice was contaminated. The speed horses chasing him all collapsed, and the horses running 17-15-18-6-16 at the six-furlong mark wound up finishing 1-2-3-4-5. Of the four horses closest to Orb, only one had ever won a stakes race, suggesting that the Derby outcome was as much a result of pace as the pure talent of the runners.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to make a case that any of Orb’s 18 foes might prove to be a better horse under different circumstances. The speed horses were trounced so badly that they were discredited, and Orb was the best of the stretch-runners. (The one possible exception might be fourth-place Normandy Invasion, whose jockey moved to the lead prematurely.) As Orb aims for the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, he doesn’t appear to have many credible rivals. McGaughey’s Derby victory could be just the beginning of an historic feat.

© 2013, The Washington Post

Joe Seba More than 1 year ago
The only question at Pimlico is if Orb can over take Oxbow or Goldencents in the stretch. I'll be keying Oxbow and boxing the three for protection. If the Beyer figures mean anything, this is Goldencents' race to win or lose and I'll be making a minor bet with him on top just in case (a Goldencents/Oxbow exacta should pay pretty good). A bad race in the muck for “Golden” shouldn't mean much. And if you don't think Pimlico will be a front runners paradise on Preakness day, you haven't been paying attention.
The swiftone More than 1 year ago
Andy You are one of the best ,if not the best writer concerning all aspects of racing. Your books are first rate. Stick to your total knowledge of the sport and please don''t continue public handicapping. Historically your Derby picks just don't pan out. just re read your pik of Goldencents and how positive you were. This was a tough race to figure . You diminish your reputation by continually being wrong. And I am a fan of yours!
Jon Munson More than 1 year ago
Anyone who follows racing should know this crop of 3 yr olds are not fast. Orbs race was nothing special. The Louisiana Derby set the bar. Every horse out of that race has come back to win or be second no handicappers talk about it. The horse from Ireland should have stayed and 3 yr olds from Europe should be knocking down the doors to get here. Jon Munson
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
anonymous... is Gary SARACENO
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
again well written......its been 35 yrs since the last triple crown champion Affirmed... i hope this is the year but i wouldn t bet on it at this point.... he was the best horse saturday but pace does usually make the race and the track condition might have changed things a bit...
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
Lets hope we have a T C winner, after 35 years, the longest drought, we thought 25 yrs from Cy to Sec was a long time ! With all the accolades going to the contempory conditioners, including Lukas, they haven't figured it out it. So maybe Shug who is now pointing for the triple crown, like he did after the Fla Dby to yum brands, OK guys team Orb..............TAKE US HOME
[removed] More than 1 year ago
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Tyler Mathis More than 1 year ago
Too funny!
Bruce Epstein More than 1 year ago
Shug deserves this derby, as well as Janney, but Dinny deserves nothing from racing. He killed NYRA as the boss many years ago. A complete failure as NYRA boss.
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
there are a lot of factors to handicapping a race...speed rating are just one piece of the puzzle....the derby has certain peculiarities that make it challenging but if you know how to look for the right angles you will be right a lot more than people think...mr Beyer based is pick on the most obvious factor he took what he thought was the fastest horse and ignored many things that were more relevant handicapping factors in this years running...heres why I picked ORB a- he won his preps arguably against better competition than most of the other contenders and he did it against a mild inside speed bias at gulfstream unlike GOLDENCENTS who was beating and being beaten by inferior completion on a track conducive to producing fast times....b-he was improving with each of his 3yo starts as the distances increased unlike VERRAZANO who was seeing his winning margin shortening as the distance increased...c- ORB was better bred to handle the distance and the slop than most of the others and I don't just look at sire and dam I mean a 5 generation full chart...d-contrary to the prediction of a slow pace due to the lack of sprinters due to the new point system I felt that the derby pace would be as fast as usual due to the presence of multiple early pace types and the fact that oxbow drew the 2 also the addition of blinkers to palace malice could influence how he would run.....e- the connections a trainer that will not squeeze the lemon dry and will not run unless he has a good shot at winning and is one of the best at what he does. a jockey that is on fire and owners that will ensure the horse gets anything it needs...f- the right pace profile an early closer with turn of foot g-he had the right dosage numbers although not a dual qualifier...Now all that does not guarantee a win but it was a much better argument than any other horse in the race had.....I can see how some bought into goldencents I had him in some futures bet exactas but knew he was up against it when I got the final field past performance sheets as a matter of fact I knew my futures bets would be dead even though many of my horses made it into the race but with very little ORB..I adjusted my bets to make a nice multiple exacta score and a few other nice bets...last year I had ill have another very early on and stuck with him but this year only really found clarity in the week before the race...better late than never.
ron More than 1 year ago
so many times everybody talks speed.this race is not some 5 or 6 fur. sprint.you handicap a lot like i do.i dont even know who my pick we be until about 4 hours before the race.ive had lots of winners in the derby that paid very good.
Clinton More than 1 year ago
stick to pounding out this slop andy you will starve handicapping