02/19/2014 3:22PM

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.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list | Who's hot, who's not]

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.”

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

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.”

Lise McLain More than 1 year ago
Hi! Good luck to trainer Shug! Thank you! Lise from Maine
RICKY More than 1 year ago
M E D I O C R E... like richard sherman says
Jd Staton More than 1 year ago
last year shug kinda came into the derby quiet and stold the show and made it clear he doesnt train for the derby if it happens then so be it and yet this year he kinda all about the derby so we shall see good luck to all
AzHorsePlayer More than 1 year ago
It's nice to see Shug enjoying his time in racing...I love seeing the good guys in the sport get rewarded for doing it the right way!
jaybern1 More than 1 year ago
Here we go again with this "good guy" thing.
WILL More than 1 year ago
Mark More than 1 year ago
Mark More than 1 year ago
*To the here we go again ;)
Hail No More than 1 year ago
Did you know him 20years ago?
jttf More than 1 year ago
speaking of easy goer. he was the last three year old to win the whitney. rachel, holybull and easy goer were the last to win the woodward at the age of three. summer bird, curlin, bernardini, albert the great, skip away, miner's mark and easy goer won the jockey club gold cup at three. there was only one horse on this list that did use lasix at the age of two. that was rachel, the only girl on the list. orb didnt use lasix at two. keep the young males off of it. easy goer also won the travers two weeks after the whitney. the woodward was 10 furlongs and the jockey club was 12 furlongs back then. he was the highweight against older in the woodward. that was an amazing streak.
Greg Stevens More than 1 year ago
Too bad Sunday Silence was a monster that year also...then Criminal Type retired both of the the following year, and Housebuster also...Criminal Type is one of the best I've seen run
jttf More than 1 year ago
lukas finally got criminal type to blossom as a five year old with four grade 1 victories. criminal type started his career in europe. so did in excess who had four grade 1 victories.the following year.
WILL More than 1 year ago
Perl More than 1 year ago
It's true. He was a terrible fit for Easy Goer. The horse needed stronger handling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would love to see a son of A.P. Indy win the Kentucky Derby. I was at my 1st Kentucky Derby in 1992, ready to bet A.P. Indy with both fists! When it was announced the he was scratched the morning of the race, I was so bummed.... He went on to be horse of the year that year and it would be great to see one of his sons win the Derby in his honor (code)! And there's no one I would rather have guiding him there than Shug!
Fred McKinney More than 1 year ago
Anonymous I was the same way. I went to Derby Day with my hopes so high On A.P. Indy to bet. Till that day, I never knew what a Ridgling was. Drove 90 miles one way to bet him in Oklahoma {Nearest track} I had bought the advanced edition & spent days & hours trying to get it right. ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, Never again will I do that. Yes I agree Shug is a real nice guy
Geral John Pinault More than 1 year ago
Commissioner gets Johnny V and the inside post in the Fountain of Youth. At 1&1/16 miles at The Gulf this is a huge advantage! This horse has cruising speed and he closes, which fits Johnny V's style to a tee. Note that Lezcano won with him last out but they've elected to go with JV! Obviously he's back in top form. Commissioner already holds a win over Top Billing and TB is parked outside in the 12 hole. I like General A Rod for 2nd. It all adds up to the need to send it in on Commissioner...
Gary Smith More than 1 year ago
Tamarando tied for 5th on the point standings,On The Bubble? He just can,t win on Santa Anita,s speed biased track. Sired by Bertrando,the track record holder at a mile and a quarter on Del Mar,s dirt.out of Tamarack Bay ,who was just getting started at a mile and three quarters. Next start Spiral on Turfways polytrack. Remember Animal Kingdom.I believe Tamarando will love Churchill Downs !
Greg Stevens More than 1 year ago
Turfway is speed biased as well...I live 3 mins from there...they soup it up every year for the spiral...he must be close to the pace
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Turfway is the most unsouped up track there is. If you are on the front end you might as well go home. Example of being souped up in Spiral day. NO!!! The pace setter (Mac the Man) that day who was 4th betting choice finished LAST. Uncaptured and Giant Finish did well to beat the bias finishing 2nd and 3rd. Black Onyx went right by them. Turfway plays like a Turf Course in Europe. One big rush from off the pace.
Mark More than 1 year ago
Daniel Alvarado More than 1 year ago
Unlike Animal Kingdom, Tamarando has already tried dirt and he doesn't seem to want any part of it. No shot in the Derby IMO.
Craig More than 1 year ago
Get them both in the Churchill gate and they will make up half the super on pedigree alone.Could even be an 89 scenario with 2/3 of the tri.
hdinky316 More than 1 year ago
I always root for Shug. He runs a great operation and always does the right thing by the horse.He has a great assistant in Robbie Medina.Robbie has been with Shug a long time and is a truly talented horseman in his own right.Good luck in the Triple Crown races.