Trainer Claude “Shug” McGaughey is not one to crash a party.
He is very much a man who will only arrive at a special event when he has the goods and when he deserves to be there.
Since 1984, McGaughey has run six horses in the Kentucky Derby. He has never unsaddled a winner in the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
In 1989, McGaughey sent out Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring. Together, they ran second and third in the Derby, but the spotlight that day belonged to Sunday Silence.
It was in that 1989 Derby and Triple Crown campaign where McGaughey might have felt like he truly was snakebit in his pursuit of two of the biggest crowning achievements in the sport.
While there's no shame in running second, those were epic defeats at the hands of Sunday Silence. The race in the Preakness Stakes is still widely considered by many racing fans as one of the most spectacular races in Triple Crown history.
Easy Goer would get his revenge on Sunday Silence, preventing that one from securing racing's elusive Triple Crown with a mesmerizing score in the Belmont Stakes.
The effects of that rivalry between Easy Goer and Sunday Silence 24 years ago still lingers in the voice of McGaughey, who clearly still has that competitive fire.
“I hate to lose. I'm very competitive,” McGaughey recently told the Louisville Star-Ledger. “In this business, when you win 25 percent of the time, you're doing really good. If you're a football coach, you get fired. Sometimes the best horse doesn't win and sometimes you don't run the best horse and they do win.”
McGaughey has run only one horse in the 24 years since. He sent out Saarland to a 10th place finish in 2002, but finds himself back under the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs this weekend with the morning line favorite in Orb, winner of both the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in South Florida.
Orb, a Kentucky-bred son of Malibu Moon, has won four times from seven lifetime starts and is atop the point standings, used for the first time to determine the starting field for the Kentucky Derby. Orb's two stakes wins earned the connections 150 points, which ties him with Verrazano for trainer Todd Pletcher.
That it took 11 years since Saarland's Derby effort for McGaughey to come back to Churchill Downs says more about the horse than the connections who are quietly optimistic about their chances.
“Orb decided it for us,” McGaughey said. “He had a fabulous winter, winning those races at Gulfstream Park. It wasn't anything we did. He's the one who brought us here.”
Orb, the 7-to-2 morning line favorite in the Derby, will break from post 16 and will be ridden by Joel Rosario, who guided Orb to his maiden victory last November and an allowance victory earlier this year at Aqueduct. He will very likely be one of the contenders at the window for the role of post time favorite in the Derby, along with the unbeaten Verrazano, Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents and Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary.
The allure of the Derby, the pursuit of the elusive prize, standing in the winners' circle at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Those are the emotions that both compel and challenge any horsemen with a chance at Triple Crown glory.
“Whenever you're not participating in the big races when you want to be, you kind of sit there with an empty feeling,” McGaughey said. “But I always felt like we were going to get the opportunity.”
McGaughey, 62, likely more so than most trainers, knows all about the triumphs and heartbreaks of the big races. A Hall of Fame trainer with nine victories in Breeders' Cup races and more than 240 graded stakes races in his career, McGaughey understands the emphasis placed on the Derby makes it the one achievement that would complete his remarkable career.
McGaughey also knows that the chances of winning the Derby, undoubtedly the most unique and challenging race in the sport of thoroughbred racing, has its own set of pitfalls.
Rush a horse into the race, or run an overmatched horse in the Run for the Roses and you run the risk of breaking a horse's spirit or diminishing their own individual achievements.
“I want the horse to bring us here,” McGaughey said. “I'm probably not satisfied that we haven't been more competitive in the past. But I do think I do know what you can do to them when you're wrong. With our limited number of horses, I'd rather not be wrong.”
Steve Bortstein is the host of “First Sports” & “The Fast Track” on FOX SPORTS AM1340/93.9FM. Bortstein also serves as paddock show host at SunRay Park and Casino and is a voting member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.