Trainer Shug McGaughey talks to exercise rider Jennifer Patterson after… (Rob Carr / Getty Images )
BALTIMORE — Wednesday morning at Pimlico race track was similar to most mornings for Claude McGaughey III. Except there were lots of reporters around, which made it different.
McGaughey is a thoroughbred horse trainer, currently the one in the catbird's seat in his sport. His long-striding Orb won the Kentucky Derby, making him racing's next Great Brown Hope.
It also makes McGaughey the present voice of the sport's future.
He has little choice. Horses, except for Mr. Ed, are lousy quotes. But their sport keeps hoping for a rise in popularity via its next Triple Crown winner — which will be the first since Affirmed in 1978. That means McGaughey needs to shovel more than oats.
"I'd be lying if I told you I didn't think about a Triple Crown once in a while," he said, fielding the usual question. "I get reminders every day."
McGaughey is a small man, differing in stature to his jockeys only in extra weight and roundness. He is 62, has been a trainer for 34 years and one of enough prominence to be in the Hall of Fame. He has nine Breeders' Cup victories on his resume and a 1989 Belmont victory with Easy Goer, who was, until Orb's stretch run at Churchill Downs, his best horse.
Now the racing world can't contain itself. When it comes to Orb, it is over the moon.
"I wouldn't say Orb is head and shoulders above the rest," said competing trainer D. Wayne Lukas, "but he is above the rest of us."
Doug O'Neill, who was in McGaughey's spot last year and won the first two legs of the Triple Crown with I'll Have Another, said, "If it's not my horse [Goldencents] winning Saturday's Preakness, then I want it to be Orb. That's good for the sport."
So it is left to a man of few words to champion the message, to make the headlines. McGaughey is holding up well in this call to duty and knows that his best-case scenario keeps the bright lights turned on.
"If we win again," he said, "the next three weeks [leading up to the Belmont] will be interesting."
If McGaughey wasn't born to this, he was certainly born close to it.
A native of Lexington, Ky., land of thoroughbreds and white fences, he liked the sport, enjoyed wagering, and then went off to find his direction at the University of Mississippi. It was the Archie Manning era, as well as the Vietnam War era. McGaughey enrolled in business school, hung around for two years while Manning completed passes, and found little inspiration in marketing or cost accounting.
So when he drew a number in the draft lottery high enough to avoid being beckoned by Uncle Sam to the rice paddies — and no longer needing the draft-protective status of school — he asked his parents if he could take a year off from bookkeeping and Archie-watching. They agreed, if he got a job.
He gravitated to the track, worked as a hot-walker and groom and, at age 28, got his license to train.
"That wasn't the goal when I started," he said, "but it just kind of worked out and I have lots of people to thank. I was lucky."
He has a nickname that helped. Still does. It is likely that only his mother saw him as Claude. He has been Shug for as long as he has been, and he embraces the nickname, not knowing what it means or whence it came.
"I'm the third [Claude III]," he said. "I grew up with it, liked it, always been fine with it. It's just there. And it isn't sugar. It's just Shug."
The best description of the man is his own. After the Derby victory, McGaughey said, "I'm not a vacation guy. I'm most comfortable around the barns."
Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated elaborated on that in a recent article. McGaughey described potential owners, some competitors and others socialites, and said he told some, "If you are looking for somebody to have lunch with you, don't hire me."
It was also Layden who correctly characterized McGaughey as a trainer from an era past, when you prepared horses slowly and carefully and ran them in a Triple Crown race only if they were very ready and special. Now, more commonly, people pay dearly for them at auction and pray they hold together.
Orb is owned by first cousins Dinny Phipps and Stuart Janney, Kentuckians who also bred the horse and have been public about their appreciation for McGaughey's slow approach.
As McGaughey fidgeted around the barn Wednesday morning, Orb grazed nearby on lush green grass. The grass was bordered by a fence decorated with names such as Citation, Count Fleet and Secretariat, Triple Crown winners.
There is room for one more. And Orb, after all, is a short word.
His short trainer agreed.
"We don't think we have reached the bottom of him yet," said Claude III.