When Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey left the Churchill Downs winner's circle last May, he took Kentucky Derby winner Orb to the Preakness in Baltimore as the only horse with a chance to sweep the elusive American Triple Crown.
"Sure, I was disappointed," McGaughey said. "But the letdown didn't last long. I still was feeling the excitement of having won the Derby and I knew that was something nobody would ever take away from me, or the horse."
Racing fans, however, were disappointed.
TRAINERS WITH CONSECUTIVE DERBY WINS
They wanted to see a horse sweep the three spring classics. They wanted to see a horse accomplish something that has not happened since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1978. They wanted to see a 12th horse sweep the American Triple Crown.
But what most fans and even the majority of racing insiders didn't realize then, or now, is that Orb's proud trainer -- and his young but exceedingly talented jockey -- Joel Rosario -- were going to be facing a more historic challenge one year later -- as in this year, as in right now.
You see, far fewer trainers and jockeys have accomplished something even more difficult than winning the Triple Crown. It is a mind-numbing fact that since the Kentucky Derby was first run in 1875, only six trainers and five jockeys have managed to win this historic race back-to-back. Let me repeat that: Only six trainers in racing history and only five jockeys have won consecutive runnings of America's most famous race!
This year, as the vast majority of racing fans know, none of the horses who competed in last year's Triple Crown events -- including Orb -- can be involved in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont. All three races are exclusively reserved for 3-year-old Thoroughbreds and they get only one shot at Triple Crown immortality.
The fact that so few trainers and jockeys have won back-to-back Derbies is made even more astonishing when we consider that the humans who train or ride racehorses for a living have careers that can last three or more decades.
McGaughey, for one, has been training since the early 1970s. Rosario, a relative newcomer (with $95 million in career purse winnings), has been riding only eight years. But such notable Hall of Fame jockeys as Bill Shoemaker, Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, who won a combined 14 Kentucky Derbies during lengthy careers, never won back-to-back Derbies. Hall of Fame trainers Charlie Whittingham, Woody Stephens and Laz Barrera, who each trained for more than 40 years, never won the Kentucky Derby twice in a row.
So that is the challenge on the table: Can Shug McGaughey and/or Joel Rosario join exceedingly short lists: Can they win consecutive runnings of the Kentucky Derby?
Frankly, it is conceivable that if the feat is accomplished this year, these two men might do it together -- with the same horse. As of this date, with about a dozen important prep races for the Derby yet to be run, Rosario has the mount on the McGaughey-trained Top Billing, one of the leading contenders for this year's Run for the Roses.
Should Top Billing benefit from his very good third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes run at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, Feb. 22, he will be a tough customer in the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 29. Should that occur, Top Billing would go on to Churchill Downs as a very serious Kentucky Derby contender.
If those plans fizzle, the game would not be over for either McGaughey or Rosario.
McGaughey loves the way Top Billing is moving forward, but also says that his "other" Derby contender this year -- Honor Code -- "is progressing very well." Honor Code, a top 2-year-old in 2013, is being pointed for the $600,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 15. Rosario, for his part, also has options.
In the Rebel for instance, Rosario is committed to ride Strong Mandate, a very good colt trained by the venerable D.Wayne Lukas. Rosario also has a scheduled mount aboard trainer John Sadler's Kristo in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 8.
It is interesting to note that both Lukas and Baffert are on the very short list of trainers who have won consecutive Derbies. Lukas thinks he knows why.
"When most trainers win the Kentucky Derby," he said, "they fall victim to what I call 'Championship Ring Syndrome.' They feel very self-satisfied," he continued. "And you don't see the same drive to win it again for quite a few years."
JOCKEYS WITH CONSECUTIVE DERBY WINS
Lukas sees McGaughey as not having been afflicted with this syndrome. "He has the drive to get back there, I can tell," Lukas said. "I could see the same thing when Bob [Baffert] won his first. They're like me," he added. "Winning the first only increased our appetites to do it again."
Rosario's agent, Ron Anderson -- the man who helps choose which horses Rosario will ride in which races -- has an enviable record picking Derby mounts for the riders he has represented. Among them are Hall of Famers Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens, as well as Garrett Gomez, Chris Antley and Rosario, his current riding star.
Four times, Anderson's riders have won the Derby: Stevens rode Thunder Gulch for Lukas in 1995 and Silver Charm for Baffert in '97; Antley rode Charismatic for Lukas in '99; and of course, Rosario was aboard McGaughey's Orb in 2013.
"This year, like every other year," Anderson said, "we won't lock into a specific horse until we have to. This year, we really like the horses we're scheduled to ride in the key prep races and we'll decide what we're doing for the Derby based on how well they run.
"Of course," he continued, "the trainers will want us to make a firm choice sometime in late March or early April. But I've learned from experience that things can change right up to the day before the Derby."
Anderson recalled that he did not get the chance to put Antley aboard 31-1 shot Charismatic until the mount came open during Derby week when Bailey opted to ride 14-1 Worldly Manner for the Dubai-based Godolphin Stables.
"No matter how long you've been in this business and I've been in it since 1973," Anderson said, "the final choices can give you nightmares. Of course the Derby is the race everybody wants to win and if we can do it twice in a row, that certainly would be something special."
Something historic, in fact.