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Orb (outside) on the way to a Florida Derby win (Photos courtesy Bob Coglianese Photos)

By Tom Pedulla, America’s Best Racing 

Trainer Shug McGaughey, who has seemingly accomplished everything during his Hall of Fame career other than winning the Kentucky Derby, will now take dead aim at that elusive prize.

Orb looms as a prime contender for the Run for the Roses on May 4 after he stormed to a 2 3/4-length victory against runnerup Itsmyluckyday in the $1 million Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

“It stands on top of all of them for me and always has,” said McGaughey, 62, who has saddled six Kentucky Derby starters to no avail. “I’d love to have the opportunity to win one.”

FLORIDA DERBY

It is safe to say there are few horses he would prefer to take his shot with other than Orb, a blossoming son of Malibu Moon who will roll into Churchill Downs with a four-race winning streak. The striking bay colt has seemingly gotten sharper with every effort since breaking his maiden last Nov. 24 at Aqueduct Racetrack.

McGaughey admitted, though, that he had some trepidation the first time he sent Orb to the starting gate at Gulfstream Park, for an allowance race on Jan. 26. “I really didn’t think his running style fit this racetrack,” the trainer admitted. “I thought he would run well, but I didn’t know if he could catch up.”

Click here to the TV/Radio schedule for the key race on the Triple Crown trail

The Kentucky-bred, owned by Stuart Janney III and the Phipps Stable, would not be slowed by what is customarily a speed-favoring dirt track. A one-length allowance score was followed by a narrow half-length decision in the Fountain of Youth here on Feb. 23. In the Florida Derby, with jockey John Velazquez wisely keeping Orb closer to a modest pace than usual, Orb gave every indication he can be something special.

“I’m pretty excited right now, not only for myself but for the Janneys and the Phippses and all of the people who put time into this horse,” said McGaughey, who is known for his patience in developing still-developing 3-year-olds and is careful not to ask them for too much too soon. He has overseen the careers of nine Eclipse Award winners and ranks among the leading conditioners with eight Breeders' Cup victories.

Velazquez, whose greatest concern came when Orb acted up a bit in a paddock ringed by excited spectators, said of the strategy he plotted after consulting with the connections: “There wasn’t a lot of speed in the race today. I was concerned that, if he was too far back, it would leave him too much to do.”

Orb sat a comfortable fifth while pace-setting Merit Man coasted on the lead, traveling the opening quarter of a mile in 24.74 and the opening half in a relatively leisurely 48.56. Jockey Kent Desormeaux handled the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint runnerup so sensibly that Merit Man held on for third. The winning time was 1:50.87.

Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. took solace in Itsmyluckyday’s second-place finish since it brought with it enough points for them to qualify for the 20-horse Derby field. “It gets us to the Derby and that was our goal,” Plesa said. “We’ll come back and see what happens the next race.”

Plesa added: “I expected him to win and he didn’t. You can’t win every race. Am I disappointed? A little bit. But he ran a great race.”

Narvaez, a 103-1 long shot, ran a surprising fourth. Shanghai Bobby, the 2-year-old champion who was unable to affirmatively answer the distance questions surrounding him, was no better than fifth. “I thought he had a little bit of a rough trip entering the first turn,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “I don’t think he really settled after that and he flattened out.”

Pletcher said he and the owners will take a few days before deciding whether Shanghai Bobby will stay on the Derby trail if he should have enough points. “I’m not making any decisions right now,” he said.

The remainder of the 10-horse field came in as follows: Pick of the Litter, Frac Daddy, Are You Kidding Me, Indy’s Illusion and Pontiff.

“Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by TwinSpires.com” leaderboard

McGaughey knows firsthand how steep a mountain the Kentucky Derby can be to climb. Easy Goer, part of an entry with Awe Inspiring, was heavily favored to bring home the roses in 1989. Easy Goer finished second behind Sunday Silence with his stablemate taking third.

For now, though, McGaughey is filled with optimism. “Hopefully, this is the one who can take us there,” he said.

For an Equibase chart, click here.

ORB LOOKED MORE THAN HAPPY TO WIN HIS SECOND DERBY PREP IN FLORIDA

Orb Inside

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