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Orb leaves Kentucky Derby field moonstruck

Jockey Joel Rosario has a perfect trip on a sloppy track and guides the Florida Derby winner to victory at Churchill Downs.

May 04, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • Jockey Joel Rosario guides Orb to victory in the 139th Kentucky Derby on Saturday over a sloppy Churchill Down track.
Jockey Joel Rosario guides Orb to victory in the 139th Kentucky Derby on… (Ron Garrison / McClatchy-Tribune )

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The horse with the short name and the long stride won the Kentucky Derby here Saturday. Fans of Orb, and headline writers worldwide, rejoiced.

Orb's daddy was Malibu Moon; thus the short name with its perfect family connection. Other choices might have been Full, Half or Neil Armstrong. But the owners, cousins Dinny Phipps and Stuart Janney, got it right, just as their wonderful horse did, in front of 151,616 at Churchill Downs.

Joel Rosario got it right too. The super jockey from the Dominican Republic left the Southern California jockey colony last year to head east in search of new adventures. His success has been spectacular. He won the recent Keeneland jockey title, then moved to Churchill Downs and won four races on opening day. In March, he took a little side trip to win the $10-million Dubai Cup on 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom.

So, coming from 17th place halfway through the race to a spectacular homestretch dash and a 21/2-length victory in the grandest horse race of all now tops the other adventures.

"I feel so good right now, I can't explain to you," Rosario said, in his best Dominican accent.

The most celebrated of the winning connections, however, was 62-year-old Shug McGaughey, Orb's trainer. He is a popular grandfather type who trains out of New York and Florida and said things afterward such as, "I'm not a vacation guy. I like to be at the barn. That's where I'm comfortable."

Asked how winning the Kentucky Derby will change his life, what it means to him, he said, "It means I won't have to worry about not winning it anymore."

Much was discussed in the aftermath of McGaughey's victory about his training style. He will not rush a horse into the Derby. He is the industry's antidote to eager owners and headline-seeking trainers who rush un-ready 3-year-olds into the annual 20-horse cavalry charge the first Saturday in May.

"Shug does it the right way," said Phipps, staring down the room full of reporters to make sure the significance of his message was understood.

The day dawned gloomy and wet. The weather guys called this one right. They saw 90% chance of rain and should have rolled all the dice. By shortly after noon, six hours until Derby post time, Churchill Downs was a soggy old shoe. In a 20-minute span, officials decreased the main track designation from "fast" to "good" to "sloppy."

The outside party sought shelter. Women in elegant dresses added garbage bags as accents. Expensive feathered hats drooped in disgust; men's horse-head caps now featured runny noses. Places to stand free of puddles were also at a minimum. Shoe sales in Louisville will increase by 50% next week.

The high-ticket places on the balconies above sheltered the favored ones, who were able to look down smugly at the great unwashed below. Except, this time, it was the great washed.

By race time, the rain had slowed to a drizzle and the muddy track was ready for the 20-horse beating it would take. Veteran Mike Smith, on longshot Palace Malice, took off like a man late for a tee time and held the lead for nearly all of the first mile of the 1 1/4-mile race. It turned out that was not intentional.

Palace Malice was given blinkers for the race and Smith said, "He was just too aggressive. Those blinkers. He wanted to go and I didn't have much choice."

Orb, the Florida Derby winner, wanted to go too, but he started behind from the 16th post position. But with a horse of this caliber, Rosario merely needed to bide his time until the sea in front of him began to part.

He swung Orb wide in the stretch, then asked for another gear around the eighth pole and got it. He momentarily raced three-wide with Golden Soul, who finished second, and Revolutionary, who finished third. But it became quickly evident that Orb had the best afterburners.

"I had the perfect trip," Rosario said. "He was calm, relaxed."

Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents turned out not to be worth a plug nickel in this one. Jockey Kevin Krigger had him nicely placed out of the eighth hole and he was in the first pack through three-quarters of a mile. But suddenly, there was no run, and Krigger was pulling him up at the finish for 17th place.

"He just didn't get there," Krigger said.

As is always the case after a Kentucky Derby, talk of a Triple Crown begins. Racing wants one and hasn't had it since Affirmed in 1978, an industry-crippling 35 years, some feel.

Experts here say that Orb is bred for the killer 11/2-mile distance of the third leg, the Belmont, but that the shorter, tighter Preakness might be Orb's Achilles' heel.

The Preakness is two weeks away and McGaughey has his own feelings.

"I can't wait," he said.

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