LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Maybe the emblem of the 139th Kentucky Derby is a hard little piece of stationery.
It boasts the ancient but heartfelt art of handwriting.
It came to rest Wednesday morning on a desk in the trainer's office in Barn 43 at Churchill Downs.
Claude R. "Shug" McGaughey III waves you into that office for a look. He hands you the note. He says he became emotional reading it the first time. "And it's not easy even reading it the second time," he says.
On its back page, the note closes: "I hope and pray that you win this Derby. You deserve it." It came from a longstanding friend who helped McGaughey long, long before McGaughey became a 62-year-old Hall of Fame trainer. Tellingly enough, the friend had visited Barn 43 just this week. He had wanted to tell McGaughey just how moving he found it that McGaughey has the Florida Derby winner Orb, a horse with a good chance in the Kentucky Derby.
Yet he just couldn't say it, the way men often cannot say things. The thought just seemed too freighted with emotion. So the man went an hour down the interstate and home to Lexington and took out the pen.
It's such a powerful visual, the idea of McGaughey winning a Kentucky Derby. It's so powerful that you almost want to avoid it because it's the Kentucky Derby, and while it's normal to want something and hard to want something badly, it's downright batty to want the Kentucky Derby badly given the thick vagaries of its 20-horse cavalry charge.
Yet a wide and deep strand of racing fans and horse-minded Kentuckians do go ahead and want anyway -- want a certain Kentuckian to win his first Derby with only his seventh entry across three distinguished decades. To them, it would reward so many things they value. It would celebrate a horseman who works for owners Stuart Janney III and Dinny Phipps -- for 28 years now -- and who like-mindedly carries out their philosophies. Respect the animals uppermost. Do not rush them. Value patience over prizes. Go to the Derby only when the animal takes you there.
Now this Orb has taken the whole team here, so McGaughey hears from strangers all day long, "lots of them," he says. People see him walking in the shedrow and come to say they hope he wins. Cards come. Emails come. The renowned longtime Kentucky columnist Billy Reed, closing a radio interview with McGaughey on Wednesday morning at the track, says to him, "There is a Derby with your name on it, and I sure hope this is the one."
Rick Pitino part-owns another entry, Goldencents, but says he'd feel happy if McGaughey won.
In a way, the world McGaughey has lived has come flowing back to him this fine week. "It's not taken for granted by any means," he says, determined to enjoy the process. He says he feels "extremely excited, and that's probably going to turn into nerves as we go along. But so far, having fun with it."
"It's the whole thing," he says. "I come in third. Mr. Phipps and Mr. Janney are the important ones. The people here" -- exercise riders, grooms, et al -- "are second. I come in third. The woman who gets on him [Orb], I'd give my whole life for her, what she's done and what she's put into it."
That would be assistant and exercise rider Jenn Patterson, whose parents in Delaware had a pony waiting for her before her birth, and who nears her seventh anniversary of working with McGaughey. She has watched Orb grow from "kind of a chicken" and "a little bit spooky" to a 3-year-old handling the crowds with aplomb. "He's turned into a man now," she says. She also knows the realities, how the best horse doesn't always win, how McGaughey brought Easy Goer to blaring fanfare in 1989 and finished second to Sunday Silence.
Says McGaughey, "I've found that as time's gone on that I can get over it. I might get mad or be disappointed for about an hour or so."
Says Patterson, "To do this together would be special."
She allows herself the visual.
She says of McGaughey, "He does things the right way . . . He just takes things as they come."
That sentiment has swirled around a lot through the years, so you can hear it again if you pick up the phone and dial Lexington. Bobby Maxwell, who used to own a company transporting horses, who knows McGaughey from way back in the lean early days when both struggled to make payroll, and who penned that note that gave McGaughey a choked-up pause at Barn 43, answers the ring.
"Shug's one of those guys that quietly helps a lot of people, and would get offended if you let him know that you knew about it," Maxwell says. McGaughey's lack of a Derby win -- he has one Triple Crown win (Easy Goer in the 1989 Belmont Stakes) next to 10 Breeders' Cup wins -- owes to nothing more than sound philosophy, Maxwell says. "'You never rush a 2-year-old,'" Maxwell quotes the philosophy. "'Never rush a 2-year-old. What's best for the horse is what we're going to do.'"
Go when the animal takes you.
So, asked how nervous he might feel on Saturday, Maxwell perhaps spoke for many. He said he would be "no more nervous than I am right now," which was already considerable. He said, "It's just that personal for me that Shug gets to win his Derby." He said he could not imagine how he might react if his big-screen TV shows his friend winning on Saturday dusk.
After all, he said, still three days from the race, and the phone call found him walking around the house with "tears dripping off my chin."
Multiply that emblem across the game, and you might get some idea of the sentiment that would flow on Saturday if . . . if . . . if . . .
If, you know.