05/08/2013 3:13PM

Jay Hovdey: McGaughey's Kentucky Derby win puts him at top of class

Barbara D. Livingston
Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, who has been training since 1976, got his first Derby win with Orb.

“Old school” seems difficult to define, but everyone knows it when they see it. The term reeks of retro, of throwbacks and nostalgia and anything of vaguely pleasant remembrance that took place “back in the day.” My 1972 Camaro, for instance, or the Los Angeles Rams.

Charles Dickens gave the idea of “old school” an early workout in “Bleak House” to describe the driven, misogynistic lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn as “an unopenable oyster of the old school,” which does not sound like a compliment. Later he was shot through the heart.

Old school took a step backwards 10 years ago with the release of the movie of the same name, although there were diehard Will Farrell fans who elevated “Old School” to a classic, and not just because of the streaking scene. Streaking is definitely old school.

Apparently, old school was very much in session last weekend at rainy Churchill Downs when Shug McGaughey unleashed Orb to win the 139th Kentucky Derby. After the race, the media summoned the old school metaphor so often to describe McGaughey’s approach to training that at some point it would have been fair to wonder if his license was still valid.

McGaughey is 62, hardly ancient by the actuarial standards of his profession. Still, having trained on his own since 1976 he qualifies as a grizzled veteran whose career has spanned enough history to allow him a perspective. Almost too much perspective.

McGaughey’s triumph was celebrated not only in the press and swirling social media. There were any number of fellow Hall of Famers who were happy to see the Kentucky boy break through with his first win in the Derby. After all, McGaughey has been running horses in the Derby since 1984, when he saddled Pine Circle to finish sixth and Vanlandingham to be 16th. It’s just that they’ve been very few and far between.

“When I watched Shug’s horse gallop at Churchill Downs he looked like everything you ever wanted in a Derby horse,” said Carl Nafzger

Nafzger, 71, is retired as a public trainer but still very much involved with Thoroughbreds. He started three horses in the Kentucky Derby and won with two: Street Sense in 2007 and Unbridled in 1990. Unbridled is the sire of Orb’s dam, Lady Liberty.

“I never saw a horse any better coming into the Derby,” Nafzger insisted. “The only other horse I’ve seen come into the Derby I thought was better was Point Given. I thought he was perfect. And then everything went wrong for him in the race and he didn’t win.”

Unbridled was by Fappiano, and Fappiano was bred by John Nerud, who at 100 qualifies as the dean of any old school you want to name

“There were six horses in the Derby with Fappiano in their pedigree, including the winner,” Nerud said. “I don’t get paid for that, but I do get satisfaction.”

As a trainer Nerud tried the Derby once, in 1957, when Gallant Man came running at Iron Liege only to have Bill Shoemaker misjudge the finish line and come up a nose short. From his home on Long Island he was seeing the same things in Orb that Nafzger was seeing at trackside.

“It was no trouble picking the winner this year,” Nerud said. “Something had to happen for him not to win. If you watched his last work before the race he worked in 47, and the little girl was just sitting on him, holding him, and she’s laughing and grinning, and the horse has his ears pricked and he’s grinning. I said when I saw that, this horse will not be denied.”

Nerud laughs when he hears about old school training. There was a time he challenged convention and went against the accepted grain. Old school, these days, is very much against the grain.

“He did a damn good job of training him,” Nerud said. “Shug McGaughey is a horse trainer. There’s other fellows out there more like entrepreneurs. I don’t think that’s real healthy for the game, to have four, five-hundred horses under one man’s care.”

After a certain number of years dissecting trainers, observing their methods and sympathizing with their trials and tribulations, this reporter has been left with the unshakable conclusion that there are two distinct approaches to their job:

There are trainers who arrive at the barn each morning fraught with trepidation over what the day might bring. They see a potential problem in every stall and very few exceptions to the rule. They juggle strife, put out fires, and pay the price for all that pressure with hunched shoulders and furrowed brows. They spend their time prepared for the worst while trying to remember how to hope for the best.

Then there are trainers who float to work, rain or shine. They can’t wait to get to the barn. Each horse presents to them an intriguing puzzle, one that makes the Times Sunday crossword look like tic-tac-toe. And it is the solving of those puzzles, over and over again, that keeps the profession fresh, vital, and sometimes downright exciting.

“You’ve got a lot of things to worry about as a trainer,” said Carl Nafzger. “But the one thing you don’t worry about is winning races. The horse will do that.

“There is an amazement that comes with being around that certain horse,” Nafzger added. “When you’re watching every horse develop his own little style, that’s the fun part. All you’ve got to do is let him do it. Sometimes winning can be a detriment to a horse. You need to wait and let him win on his own terms. If he’s a good horse he’ll win races. But is winning everything? No. Winning the right races is everything. And that’s Shug McGaughey to a T.”