LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Upon a lousy, rotten, brutal, unjust, unmerciful, unrelenting planet, the occasional justice can come as manna.
Such manna availed itself just after 6:35 p.m. Saturday to 151,616 who had weathered pelting rain to grace Churchill Downs. Some -- especially Kentuckians -- relished it. Some probably harrumphed if the justice did not cash tickets. Some may have missed the justice because they came mostly for the cocktails. Some may have missed the justice because they had slipped into cocktail comas.
Here came justice, bolting surely through the slop like a bullet train from the top of the stretch, demanding the attention of the neck hairs.
Here came Orb, the best horse in the 139th Kentucky Derby, proving that the Kentucky Derby really can reveal the best horse even when it can seem categorically designed to avoid the same. Its thick cavalry charge and human hubbub and limitless distractions not only did not occlude the best animal but revealed him. It pinpointed a being who used the middle of the track to spring coolly from 15th place with a move that thrilled the eye.
There stood Shug McGaughey, Orb's Hall of Fame trainer, at the first moment of the removal of a long worry. He looked shy of ebullient. He looked oddly tepid. He looked almost befuddled. "You know something?" he said. "I get myself so built-up it's almost like a letdown when it's over."
He assured everyone, however, that he felt "elated." The stubborn and coveted Kentucky Derby promises nothing, especially not justice, but nonetheless had spent years tantalizing this native Kentuckian who respects his animals and credits his assistants. Now at 62, after all his wins (10 in the Breeders' Cup, one in the Belmont Stakes) and all his patience and all his prudence in entering 3-year-olds sparingly, it had told McGaughey "Yes."
"Well, the way it's going to change my life is I'm not going to have to worry about it anymore, because I've worried about it for a while," he said. "And I might not let anybody know that, but inside that thought was always there."
That's right: A man quietly tantalized by something maintained patience about that same something. He entered only six horses across 28 years. "He does it the right way," said Orb co-owner Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps. "Explain what the right way is? Take your time. Let the horse bring you to the race."
McGaughey had to wonder. Now, he doesn't have to wonder.
That seems fair, but this equitable Kentucky Derby wouldn't stop with that. Not only did it reward a trainer so deserving that a horde of horse people and a rival owner named Rick Pitino felt happy for him, but it sprinkled some mirth across the centuries of Orb's co-owning cousins. The Phipps and Janney families have a love of the game that stretches back to the 1800s, to Phipps' great-grandfather two turns-of-century ago, to his grandmother who ran Wheatley Stable in the 20th, to his father with the remarkable life of Harvard and court tennis and the Navy in World War II and two second-place finishes in the Derby, to Stuart Janney III's father owning such gems as Private Terms and Ruffian.
"The horse's bloodline goes back to my grandmother," Janney said, "and Dinny's father was very instrumental in getting me to take over my parents' horses 20-some years ago. And so I just couldn't be more delighted that we're doing this together."
All those years, horses, hope and patience -- all those highs, now such a crescendo that Phipps spotted "a culmination."
Justice, as ever, reserved the right to behave strangely. It spent so much time hiding and sneering. It carried that on even through this winter and right on toward spring, when McGaughey, as ever, did not aim particularly for this Derby. He reserved the right to remain unsure about what he had. Then Orb won the Florida Derby despite a track bias against him. Then McGaughey began to realize.
Then one day, justice perked up and paid attention -- rapidly. "I don't know," McGaughey said, "but maybe the last five or six weeks has been about as exciting a five or six weeks as I've had, and to come over here the last 12 days and experience what we've experienced . . ." -- with so much sentiment behind him -- "it's just something I can't really put into words." Now he looks ahead to the Preakness two weeks hence and says, "I think there's more there. I don't think we've bottomed out. I think he's still learning how to run a little bit."
Now McGaughey has anticipation crowding the space where the worrying and wondering used to lurk. The worrying and wondering died on Saturday at half past six. To witness it felt like justice, and in a hard, crazy world justice is something to see.