I like to feel a horse's coat. I like to watch horses graze. I like to watch them drink. Horses that drink a lot of water are doing good. When they perspire a little bit, their coats look better. I like to touch horses. I like being around them. I like to watch them here, standing in the sun.
—TRAINER CLAUDE (SHUG) McGAUGHEY III
Buzzy Tenney, holding to a leather lead shank, led Easy Goer from the shadows of Barn 14 at Gulfstream Park and into the sunlight of an early January afternoon in Hallandale, Fla. This year's preeminent American 3-year-old dipped his head and blinked his eyes as he emerged, swinging his hips, into the light.
"Bring him over here!" McGaughey called to Tenney.
Notwithstanding the unsightly blemishes of a skin rash on his left side, which appeared dry and healing, Easy Goer seemed not so much to reflect the light as to emanate it, his chestnut coat shifting over packs of muscle that swept from his neck and shoulders to his hocks. Since his disappointing second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Nov. 5—he apparently did not care for the muddy going—the colt had done almost nothing, resting and training lightly as he convalesced following treatment for sore shins in mid-November.
Tenney brought the colt to a stop, turned him once, and let him chew on the end of the leather shank as a kind of pacifier. The colt stood docilely in the sun.
"He's doin' real good, Mr. Phipps," McGaughey said. Ogden Phipps, the colt's 80-year-old owner, stepped back and admired his champion—Easy Goer won the Eclipse Award as the best 2-year-old colt in '88. Easy Goer is a son of Alydar out of Relaxing, one of Phipps's champion race mares of yore, and it was Phipps who arranged the mating that produced this colt.
"He's not small," said Phipps. "He's bigger than he was, and I think he's going to get bigger and stronger. And his legs look good."
"His legs are excellent, Mr. Phipps," McGaughey said.
The owner nodded. "He's not fat, either," he said.
"We purposely kept him from gaining a lot of weight," McGaughey said. "Remember when he got sick as a 2-year-old down here and he gained all that weight? I wanted to make sure that doesn't happen again. I don't have a lot of time to get him ready for the [Kentucky] Derby, and I didn't want him getting too big on me in the time he was off."
It was the early afternoon of Jan. 8, and for a moment the three of them stood there—the colt, the trainer and the owner-breeder—looking as if they might be posing together for one of those big, solemn oil paintings that would one day hang in the National Museum of Racing. They symbolized not only much that made 1988 such an extraordinary year in racing but also what 1989 might yet turn out to be—something even more exceptional. That is, a year in which this royally bred chestnut—with an owner possessed of a pedigree the equal of his and a trainer who knew nothing about horses just 20 years ago—could become America's 12th Triple Crown winner.
Easy Goer is the solid winter-book favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, which will be run on May 6. Phipps was voted two Eclipse awards, as both outstanding owner and breeder, and McGaughey (pronounced muh-GAY-hee) won the trophy as America's leading trainer. And the colt wasn't even the most distinguished horse in the stable. What really earned McGaughey his Eclipse was the job he did with Phipps's Personal Ensign, last year's champion older filly. When she nipped Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors at the wire in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last fall, at the end of the most heart-stopping stretch run of the year, she became the first major American racehorse to retire undefeated (13-0) since Colin left the racetrack 80 years before. McGaughey also campaigned Phipps's Seeking the Gold, making him one of the nation's leading 3-year-olds, as well as major-stakes winners Personal Flag, Mining, and Cadillacing, a full sister to Easy Goer.
What made the achievements of the two men so notable is that they represented a throwback in the sport, a way of racing that had appeared to be endangered. Phipps breeds, raises and races all his own horses, buying none of them at the sales, and last year those horses were all out of mares he had bred and raced himself.
Although McGaughey never had more than 30 horses in training in 1988, they ended up winning nearly $7.2 million in purses, a staggering amount considering that his horses started in only 215 races.
Because of his work last year, particularly with Personal Ensign and Seeking the Gold, the 38-year-old McGaughey has come to be viewed as perhaps the brightest young trainer in America. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself and ask, 'How could this happen to me?' " he says. He not only has his first Eclipse, but better yet, the Kentucky boy has turned the corner into the new year with the winds toward Louisville blowing at his back. "To have the champion 2-year-old colt, and going to the Kentucky Derby!" he says. "I've dreamed about it so long—I've had it in me so long."
And to be having his success with the Phipps stable makes it all the more special. Way back in the mid-1970s, when he was working as an unknown assistant to trainer David Whiteley, McGaughey remembers walking to the deli near the main gate at Belmont Park, stopping at the end of the Phipps barn, looking down the long shedrow and gazing at the stalls decorated in emblems of cherry red and black, the famous Phipps colors. "The wooden wall boxes, the stalls with horses, the men playing checkers," he says. "I'd stand at the end of that shed and say to myself, 'If one day I could train those horses, that would be the ultimate dream.' "
As unlikely as that might have seemed at the time, it was no more so than McGaughey working on the race-track in the first place. Though born in Lexington, Ky., right in the hub of the Bluegrass, he grew up knowing far more about a five-iron than a stirrup iron. In his youth, except for an occasional visit to Keeneland racecourse with his father, who helped run the family's prosperous laundry and dry cleaning business, McGaughey knew nothing about horses. At 5'5", he was too small for high school team sports, so he took up golf, and he attacked the game with the same zeal he later brought to training horses.
By the time he was 17 he was down to a three handicap. His mother, Mildred, had once tried to coax him into horseback riding, but that adventure lasted only a day. "He came home and said, 'I really don't like cleaning the feet of those horses,' " she recalls. So it was something of a wonder to his family that when he dropped out of Ole Miss after his sophomore year, he got a job walking hots at Keeneland for $40 a week. He knew by then that golf was not for him, at least as a way to earn a living. He simply wasn't good enough.
McGaughey had begun attending the races regularly, and suddenly found himself caught up in the seductive rhythms of the racetrack, a world as insular as a traveling circus. "I liked sports, and it gave me a chance to play a competitive game, to compete," he says. "I liked the atmosphere of the racetrack as a bettor. I liked the action. I liked reading the Daily Racing Form. I liked being around the barn. I liked the idea that you could make your own destiny."
It was a filly, Sweet Lover, who really sank the racing hook into him. He was a groom at Latonia racetrack in Kentucky in the fall of 1971, and Sweet Lover was the first horse he ever took to the post. He was making $60 a week at the time, and he bet $4 to win on her. She did just that and paid $165 for a $2 bet, giving McGaughey a profit for the day, he remembers, of precisely $326. "I was rich for two weeks," he says.
If the racetrack ended his days as a serious golfer—he still gets around today in the low 80's—that was just as well. When he went to work in New York for veteran trainer Frank Whiteley and his son David, there was no time for anything, day or night, but the horses. The Whiteleys are notoriously obsessive workers. "Every 12 hours working for them is like 48 hours with anyone else," says trainer LeRoy Jolley. Looking back on it, says McGaughey, hiring on with the Whiteleys was the pivotal decision in his life.
He worked as David Whiteley's assistant for five years, until 1979, and emerged from the experience a horseman in his own right. Even measured against the rigorous Whiteley standard, McGaughey excelled.
For most of the next six years McGaughey trained for a variety of owners, at one point handling a large public stable with as many as 80 head running at four different tracks. "It about wore me out," he says. But it was there, in that frantic world of the public stable, that he first drew attention to himself, most notably when, in 1983, he took over a division of second-string 2-year-olds for John Ed Anthony's Loblolly Stable. Of the six youngsters who came under his care, one of them, Pine Circle, went on to finish second to Swale in the 1984 Belmont Stakes. But it was another colt, Vanlandingham, who took the trainer on a fast gallop to the top. Vanlandingham won three Grade I stakes in 1985 and was acclaimed the U.S.'s champion older horse.
"Shug is knowledgeable about horses in a way that's kind of magic," says Anthony. "He leans on his tack room door and watches the horses walk past him in sets to the racetrack. They may make a couple of turns, and he'll say, 'Put that one back in his stall; he's not happy.' Or, 'He's not moving the way I want.' Shug is also probably one of the most intense competitors I've met."
In the beginning, McGaughey's tantrums in the barn were almost legendary. McGaughey winces at the memory. "That sort of thing embarrasses me," he says. "I've calmed down a lot." Even today, though, he comes close to losing it when something goes wrong, at times to the point of tears: "Some days I get so mad that I feel like eating the windshield off of my car."
It is precisely that level of passion, of course, that has made him the horseman he is today. Owners and breeders had been watching his climb for years, and among them was the president of Claiborne Farm, Seth Hancock, an adviser to Phipps and his son, Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps, who also breeds and races his own horses.
In late 1985, when the Phipps family and its trainer, Angel Penna, came to a parting of the ways, Hancock suggested to Dinny Phipps that the family consider hiring McGaughey. When Phipps made the offer, McGaughey recalled the mornings he used to stop at the end of that shed and hope for the day. There were all those blue-blooded mares on the farm, and the elder Phipps had been pursuing a program to breed his mares to the nation's leading stallions: to Mr. Prospector, Alydar and Seattle Slew, as well as to their own successful family stallion, Private Account, the sire of Personal Ensign.
"There's a chance to get a horse of a lifetime there," McGaughey told his wife, Mary Jane, an exercise rider, who was carrying their first child, Claude IV, at the time. They were on their way.
The Phipps family is one of the oldest and most formidable powers in the sport. It was Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, Ogden's mother, who bred and raced the phenomenally fast Bold Ruler. America's 1957 Horse of the Year, and put him to stud at Claiborne. Bold Ruler was even more brilliant as a sire than he had been as a racehorse, and through the 1960s he packed the Phipps stable with some of the swiftest horses in the land. Ogden himself bred and raced Buckpasser, a fine one back in the family's glory days in the '60s. The family's racing fortunes had waned since then, particularly in the past few years, but they were on the eve of a resurgence in 1985. In fact, McGaughey could not have arrived at a more propitious time. Relaxing was pregnant with Easy Goer. Seeking the Gold was a weanling. And Personal Ensign, Polish Navy, Mining and Cadillacing were all yearlings. The stable would soon be deep and talented, and the Phippses had a trainer who knew what to do with it.
McGaughey's training regimen does not begin and end in the early morning hours, when horses gallop or work out on the racetrack, but extends to assorted late-morning activities—from the grazing of the horses to the hosing of their legs. And after lunch, when most stables are idle, the work resumes with stable workers leading the horses from the barn to let them bathe in the sun. The point is to break the routine of a day and keep a horse active doing something, even if it's really nothing at all. Such work is what McGaughey means by mental preparation.
"Getting them out of their stalls—it's a hands-on thing," he says. "After you train them, let them walk around the barn area, pick the grass.... Let them understand that the racetrack isn't a place to be scared of. Be relaxed up there and let them enjoy it—pamper them! Don't be in a rush. Take your time. Fuss with them. Keep them out of their stalls as long as possible. When you do that stuff with them, they're a lot easier and more mentally sound to train."
In McGaughey's mind, such attention has yielded its rewards. Seeking the Gold was an ornery, difficult racehorse at this time last year, a head case in the paddock and at the starting gate, so McGaughey went to work between his ears, schooling him, fussing with him, working with him. "When it all came together, it all came at once," the trainer recalls. "He started eating better. He started running better. He got better at the starting gate. He got better in the paddock. He was feeling good, looking forward to doing things."
While the results of McGaughey's flawless work with Personal Ensign were more obvious, his handling of Seeking the Gold was impressive in its own right, a model of managing a horse patiently. After the colt ran a creditable seventh in the Kentucky Derby, beaten only five lengths, most trainers would have wheeled him back in the Preakness two weeks later. Not McGaughey.
"I wanted to start over again with him and run him in places where he had the best chance to win," he says. "I was wrong running him in the Derby, and I didn't want to do something foolish again." McGaughey passed up the Preakness and instead entered Seeking the Gold in the Peter Pan, a major prep for the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes. The colt won by two. Off that victory, several horsemen urged the trainer to run Seeking the Gold against Risen Star in the Belmont, but once again he wisely shook his head. "I just didn't think he was ready for it," he says. Instead, he sent him in the Dwyer at Belmont Park. The colt won by almost two.
Now he cranked him harder. Inside of a month, in both the Haskell Handicap at Monmouth and the Travers at Saratoga, Forty Niner beat Seeking the Gold by a nose. Then McGaughey backed off again. Pointing for the Breeders' Cup Classic, he sidestepped the rugged fall stakes in New York and sent him to Louisiana Downs for the Super Derby, a softer touch. Seeking the Gold won by a neck, and that victory primed him for the Classic. The older Alysheba was all out to beat him by half a length.
All told, it was a beautifully run campaign that brought him there, one that tested him but did not hang him out to dry. In the parlance of the racetrack, McGaughey did not squeeze the lemon too soon. With Alysheba, Forty Niner and Risen Star all retired, this could be Goldie's year. And McGaughey's.
"I'm doing exactly what I want to do and working for the people I always wanted to work for," McGaughey says. "I wouldn't change a thing in my life. I like everything about it. This is my world."