Claude (Shug) McGaughey, trailed by his pregnant wife, Mary Jane, fought his way through the clubhouse throng at Gulfstream Park last Saturday afternoon and fairly danced down the stairs to the racetrack. He couldn't wait to get to his colt, Easy Goer, the winter-book favorite for the Kentucky Derby, who in his 3-year-old debut had just blown away the competition in the Swale Stakes. As well-wishers called out congratulations, McGaughey shook his head, wiped his brow and heaved a sigh of relief. "Whew," he said. "Easy Goer made some kind of a run. I don't see how we can ask any more of him than that." As jockey Pat Day guided Easy Goer toward the winner's circle, he spotted McGaughey, smiled and made a circle with his thumb and forefinger. "Perfect!" McGaughey replied. Mary Jane took one look at the handsome chestnut son of Alydar, and cooed, "Oh, my little Buddy!" Then she burst into tears of joy.
Tears of a different sort had been shed just 45 minutes earlier when Dixieland Brass, the 9-10 favorite in the Florida Derby, had broken down on the backstretch. While long shot Mercedes Won and his owners basked in the winner's circle, Dixieland Brass, led by trainer Charlie Peoples, limped slowly back to his barn. The colt had suffered a bowed tendon low in his left foreleg and would never race again.
Thus, in one afternoon, the racetrack humbled one horse, raised another's hopes and confirmed a Kentucky Derby favorite. The main event was supposed to be the $500,000 Florida Derby, the first major prep for Churchill Downs, but McGaughey changed all that when he decided to enter Easy Goer, last year's top 2-year-old, in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes. McGaughey was tense with anticipation on Saturday morning. "I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I have dreamed of this day for the 15 years I've been a trainer."
McGaughey's anxiety stemmed in part from Easy Goer's second-place finish in his last race, the Breeder's Cup Juvenile on Nov. 5, and the long layoff that followed. On Friday morning, the trainer sat outside his tack room looking over the past performances of Easy Goer's five opponents in the Swale. "We ought to be able to handle these horses," he said. "If we can't, we might have a long spring. My horse is doing great. But he's coming off a race he's been beat in, and he's been built up, what with the press comparing him to Secretariat. I'd just like to see him prove himself and get this all over with."
When the gates opened, Easy Goer, who runs from off the pace, broke slowly and was back in fifth place at the quarter-mile mark. At the half, Easy Goer made his move. Day let the colt out a notch leaving the backstretch, and he zoomed up on the outside before exploding from the half-mile pole and taking the lead with a furlong to go. From then on, Day simply hand-rode Easy Goer to the wire, cruising to an 8¾-length victory in 1:22[1/5]. The 2-year-old champion had successfully made the transition to 3-year-old Derby contender and erased all doubts that he is the one to beat in Louisville. "I don't see how anything could be better," said a relieved McGaughey. "All my waiting is over."
While the Swale answered questions, the Florida Derby raised them. It shaped up as a virtual rerun of the Fountain of Youth Stakes, won just two weeks earlier by Dixieland Brass. But when the gates slammed open last Saturday, Mercedes Won, breaking from an outside post, zipped straight for the lead, took it on the first turn and never looked back, winning by five lengths. For Dixieland Brass, the Derby was over almost before it began when the colt was pulled up on the backstretch by jockey Randy Romero. "I started trying to pull him up about an eighth of a mile out," said Romero later. "But he's a tough, game horse and he didn't want to stop. I thought he was my ticket to the Kentucky Derby...but that's racing."
The story of Mercedes Won is racing, too. The colt's owner, Christopher Spencer, 25, bought him at the September yearling sales at Keeneland in 1987 for a bargain-basement $5,700. He has now won six of 14 races and $688,502. Mercedes Won showed promise as a 2-year-old, winning both the Sanford and Hopeful stakes at Saratoga and two stakes in Canada, where he was named 2-year-old champion. But he hadn't won in four starts this year until the Florida Derby. It's unlikely he will run on the first Saturday in May because his handlers don't think he's ready to race under the tough Kentucky Derby conditions.
So by day's end there were three colts going in different directions: Dixieland Brass will go to stud; Mercedes Won will look for some fat purses; and Easy Goer will continue his march down the long road to Louisville, via New York, where he'll race in the Gotham and the Wood Memorial.
Heartbreak lines that road, and nobody knows that better than Peoples. Long after night had fallen, he sat outside Dixieland Brass's stall, a lone sentinel watching over his injured star. "I haven't had very good luck with the Florida Derby," said Peoples. "I guess it's a jinxed race for me. But I'm not superstitious. Sure it's hard, but it's one of those things that happen."
Things happen all the time in the racing game. Getting to Churchill Downs is hard enough. In the next two months, horses' fortunes will rise and fall, and the picture will change kaleidoscopically. For all the horse he knows he has in Easy Goer, even McGaughey speaks with an "if when he talks about the big race. "If we could get to the Derby," he said last Saturday afternoon, "it would be the climax of a dream."