Looking ashen-faced and a bit lost, as if he'd just awakened from a long and bewildering dream—which, in a way, he had—trainer Shug McGaughey made off in a rush through the box seats at Belmont Park.
Hands reached out, patting him on the back and pushing him along, and a chorus of cheers rose everywhere to greet him: "Way to go, Shug, way to go!" Far behind him, the voice of his wife, Mary Jane, also cried out: "Wait for me!" In a cloth pouch strapped to her chest she was carrying their son Reeve, who was eight days old and somehow sleeping through the madness of the moment. Oblivious to Mary Jane's call, McGaughey started down the winding staircase leading toward the winner's circle. Mary Jane, clutching the pouch, scurried to keep up.
"Oh, Shug!" she said, grasping the railing as she raced to catch her husband. "I knew Easy Goer could do it. I knew he could do it all along."
McGaughey had reached the bottom of the stairs when he finally heard his wife's voice behind him. He turned around, looking almost startled to see her there, and sheepishly asked, "Are you all right?"
One could forgive him his confusion on this day. For 38-year-old Claude R. McGaughey III, the longest and most painful springtime of his life had come to a happy end. The trainer had at last been vindicated by a horse doubly redeemed. Five minutes earlier, in an exhibition of power and speed rarely seen in 3-year-olds, McGaughey's colt Easy Goer had crushed nine others, including archrival Sunday Silence, on his way to winning the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes by eight lengths. The chestnut's final time of 2:26, while two seconds slower than Secretariat's 1973 world record, was nonetheless the second-fastest Belmont in history. Along the way, Easy Goer ran one of the most brilliant quarter-mile splits in the annals of the Belmont. Around the last bend, he blazed through the fifth quarter of the race in 24[2/5] seconds, sending the rest of the field up in smoke, and he came home racing only the wind.
Sunday Silence, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, was seeking to become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown—and the first to earn the $5 million bonus that now goes with it—but he found far more than he could handle in Easy Goer, and ultimately could only hang on for second, a length in front of the pace-setting French import, Le Voyageur.
"I have to feel some vindication," McGaughey said. "Best of all, now I don't have to listen to the criticisms of the horse anymore. But I never lost confidence in him."
Indeed, McGaughey was one of the few who truly kept the faith, even when what was supposed to be a season of triumph turned into one of the most trying periods of the trainer's career. When the Triple Crown series began, Easy Goer was widely perceived as the second coming of Secretariat. But on May 6, Sunday Silence beat him by 2½ lengths in the Kentucky Derby—over a muddy racetrack that Easy Goer clearly did not like—and in the Preakness two weeks later, Sunday Silence outran him again, this time by a nose on a fast track, after a head-and-head battle through Pimlico's homestretch. Easy Goer had no excuses, and McGaughey no answers.
In the next three weeks, dozens of well-wishers, most of them complete strangers, offered suggestions, telling him what he had to do to beat Sunday Silence in the Belmont. "I took my car to a car wash yesterday, and the guy working there was giving me all sorts of advice," McGaughey said the week before the race. "It's been unbelievable. Some s.o.b. called and told me to recite the Eighth Psalm three times in the next three days after sundown and then put olive oil on my feet."
Some of the calls were enough to scare a man to death. One guy phoned McGaughey at his office and intoned ominously, "Take this number down." McGaughey froze, expecting the worst. "I thought that the guy was a kidnapper and had snatched my [2-year-old] son Chip," McGaughey said. "Instead, the guy told me to write a bunch of numbers and letters down on a piece of paper, ball it up and put it in Easy Goer's feed. Supposed to drive all the negatives away. Can you imagine that?"
McGaughey knew there were no hocus-pocus solutions, just as he knew there would be no excuses in this Belmont. Long Island was deluged with rain throughout the week, but Saturday broke sunny, windy and warm. By post time, the track was fast and the crowd was ready to honor a new Triple Crown champion. As the race unfolded, there was every reason to think Sunday Silence, with jockey Pat Valenzuela, would make it happen. Down the back-stretch, Valenzuela closely stalked the leader, Le Voyageur; directly behind them, racing off Sunday Silence's flank, Pat Day sat chilly on Easy Goer, waiting for the real race to start.
It began all at once. Into the far turn, with 880 yards to go, Valenzuela nudged Sunday Silence on, and the colt gave sudden chase, racing to the outside of Le Voyageur. Day immediately chirped to Easy Goer, but got no response; so, approaching the three-eighths pole, Day raised his whip in the air. Now he felt Easy Goer surge.
"As soon as I turned my stick up, he kicked it in and kicked hard," Day said. The rider knew at once that this was a different horse from the one he had ridden in the Derby and the Preakness. Coming to the [5/16] pole on the last turn for home, Easy Goer ranged up next to Sunday Silence and, in a trice, bounded past. Turning for home, Easy Goer opened a length as Day lashed him hard with a lefthanded whip, and the colt lengthened his lead to the wire. The crowd roared him home, saluting a performance as commanding as had been seen in New York in years—the kind of performance, indeed, that it had been expecting from Easy Goer all along.
Sunday Silence was still awarded a $1 million consolation prize for his two firsts and a second-place finish in the Triple Crown races, and the colt's trainer, Charlie Whittingham, extolled Easy Goer's performance. "Easy Goer just outran him," Whittingham said. "Maybe that was one of the great mile and a halfs of all time. He ran like a mile-and-a-half horse. Mine didn't."
McGaughey suggested that the Preakness three weeks earlier may in fact have decided the Belmont. "The Preakness was the first time in his life that Easy Goer was ever forced to run head and head with another horse," said McGaughey. "I think it helped him. It made a man out of him."
Late on Saturday night, with the horses cooled out and bedded down, McGaughey stopped in for a nightcap in a bar at the Garden City Hotel, where Whittingham was staying. The two men ended up sitting at a table together until well past midnight, swapping stories. "You lose more than you win in this game," said Whittingham, "and if you don't know how to lose, you better get out of it fast. We beat Shug twice and he never squawked once. I'm not squawking either."
Whittingham raised his glass toward McGaughey. "Here's to ya," he said. The two men drank to that.