02/19/2014 2:22PM

Kentucky Derby: McGaughey has two top prospects for repeat bid

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Shug McGaughey had Honor Code breeze three furlongs at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 12 as the horse prepares for his 2014 debut.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Two days after winning last year’s Kentucky Derby with Orb, trainer Shug McGaughey was pulling into the parking lot of the place where he gets his eyeglasses near his home on Long Island, N.Y., when the phone rang. It was his good friend, Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells.

“That’s just the bait,” Parcells, a two-time winner of the Super Bowl, told McGaughey.

McGaughey already knew it. Like the fish McGaughey likes to catch on his off days, he was hooked.

“I do think about it a lot,” McGaughey said at his Gulfstream Park barn Wednesday. “It meant a lot. It’s a hugely, hugely exciting thing.”

When Orb ran in the Derby last year, McGaughey had not been in the race since 2002, with Saarland. And before that, he hadn’t run in the race since 1989, with Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring. McGaughey does seem properly immunized from Derby fever.

But if he has the horse – or horses – who can take him there, he’s eager to get back. And McGaughey is casting anew this year. He has two highly ranked prospects for this year’s Derby in Honor Code and Top Billing. On the Derby Watch top-20 list, they are the co-second choices at 6-1 on the future line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form ’s national handicapper.

Honor Code is the more accomplished of the two. He won the Remsen Stakes and was second in the Champagne Stakes at age 2, but is still a few weeks away from his 2014 debut.

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Top Billing is farther along. He will make his third start of the year Saturday in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Asked Wednesday if he’d like to win the Derby again, McGaughey got a big smile. “Oh yeah,” he said.

“You can imagine the feeling, but it’s so much more than I ever expected,” McGaughey added. “I was playing golf with Raymond Floyd. I asked him, ‘When you were growing up, and you imagined sinking a putt to win the Masters, did it feel like you thought it would when you won?’ He said no, it was much more. I feel the same way.”

It wasn’t just the immediate rush of winning. McGaughey said the moments after the race are seared into his mind – exercise rider Jenn Patterson telling him, “We did it,” on the racetrack; seeing his wife, Alison, and sons, Chip and Reeve, out of the corner of his eye while being interviewed on television; being hustled to the winner’s circle; and then going to a post-race toast in the Kentucky Derby Museum.

“That was a pretty big deal, when you walk in and all the people clap,” he said.

The glow of winning the Derby has lasted. A placard bearing Orb’s name was added to the roster of Derby winners in the paddock at Churchill Downs. A few weeks later, McGaughey called his son Reeve, an assistant to Charles LoPresti, and jokingly asked if it was still there.

“It’ll be here as long as there’s a Churchill Downs, and that’s a long time,” Reeve replied.

McGaughey got letters “from close friends, friends, classmates, and people I don’t even know.” Three of those letters were incorporated into a speech McGaughey gave last fall when honored by the Thoroughbred Club of America. On Wednesday, recounting one of those letters – from Nancy Bishop, the widow of McGaughey’s friend, attorney Buddy Bishop – tears started welling in his eyes, and then a drop trickled down his left cheek.

“I read that speech 50 times because I didn’t want to read it at the dinner. By 4 p.m. that afternoon, I couldn’t get through the letters of Doc Lavin,” McGaughey said, referring to noted veterinarian Gary Lavin, “and Nancy Bishop. But I got through it that night. You can see I get emotional about it. The letters I got, that stuff means a lot.”

Orb’s victory capped a brilliant spring campaign that included a victory in the Fountain of Youth. Top Billing, with just three starts so far, doesn’t have the experience that Orb did going into the Fountain of Youth. But with two wins and a narrow loss in those three starts, he has come around quickly. Top Billing won a first-level allowance last time out here Jan. 25.

“Top Billing, he’s not flashy,” McGaughey said. “By this time a year ago, Orb had started to get a little flashy. But even though Orb ran more as a 2-year-old, both are coming into the Fountain of Youth off a win in a one-other-than.

“It’s been difficult for me to get a bead on Top Billing because he’s not flashy. He’s extremely sound. He’s got an unbelievable mind. They told me when he was first training in Ocala last year that he was half nuts, that he’d come back without a rider once a week, but I’ve never seen any of that.”

McGaughey said Top Billing “is a lot easier to be around than Honor Code.”

“Sometimes, Honor Code wants to do what he wants to do,” McGaughey said. “Top Billing is really easy. He doesn’t catch the eye. Honor Code, he catches the eye.”

Honor Code, a blaze-faced dark bay with four white stockings, worked an easy half-mile Wednesday, his second work since relocating to Gulfstream from the Payson Park training center, where he developed soreness in his hind ankles. DRF timed him in 49.55 seconds and out five furlongs in 1:02.77.

“He’s pretty fit,” McGaughey said. “I don’t think we lost much condition with him.”

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McGaughey last week mentioned the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 15 as a potential comeback race for Honor Code. Can he make it?

“I think he’s got a good chance,” McGaughey said. “I think we’ll be fine.”