The truth is, Shug McGaughey and his big horse belong in another time. They belong in a time back when thoroughbred racing was a genuine, mainstream sport in America and not just a television event that NBC could package (quite nicely, don’t get me wrong) like Day 5 of the Olympics (only to see it disappear upon conclusion just as quickly as the Games). A time back when hulking racetracks like Pimlico in North Baltimore and Belmont Park in Queens were viable daily entertainment businesses, and not white elephants to be sold off, shut down and destroyed to make way for more practical development (as will be done with Hollywood Park in Los Angeles at the end of 2013). A time back when horses were bred to race classic distances by men of great means and trainers with great patience (and names like “Shug”). When the entire enterprise was somehow dignified.
McGaughey will arrive Tuesday in Baltimore with his Kentucky Derby winner, Orb, to commence final preparations for Saturday’s Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown. He arrives center stage in a sport for which he has sacrificed much and loves deeply, and in return, has paid him back with a comfortable and privileged life. That sport has changed much since McGaughey was first smitten by it as a teenaged Kentucky gambler in the mid-1960s and even since he took out his first trainer’s license in 1979. McGaughey, however, has scarcely changed at all. He is a throwback trainer with a throwback horse and it’s possible that recipe will provide racing with its first Triple Crown in 35 years.
“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” McGaughey said late last week, as a steady, light rain fell through tall, slender evergreens onto the roof of Barn 20 at Belmont — home base for trainer, horse and the Phipps Stable. “This is what I got into the sport for, to be competitive in the biggest races.”
GALLERY: Horse racing’s Triple Crown winners
He is a small man, the rare trainer who can deliver instructions to his riders eye-to-eye (or nearly so), with a dense drawl earned by spending his first three decades in the South. (McGaughey went to the University of Mississippi; he was a freshman and sophomore during Archie Manning’s final two years as the Rebels’ starting quarterback, an electric time on the Ole’ Miss campus and, truthfully, in all of college football history. “When Archie was a junior,” says McGaughey, “he was the best college football player I’ve ever seen, to this day”). He became a full-time trainer at the end of the 70s, one of the greatest decades in the sport’s history, when Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed all won Triple Crowns and it seemed like the flow of great racehorses would never end.
Yet from the 1980s onward, racing’s business model has changed, in almost every way imaginable. Racetracks emptied in favor of simulcast parlors (and now, Internet wagering), and many, like once-majestic Gulfstream Park in South Florida, were transformed into “Racinos,” where live racing was simply a diversion from windowless hours at slot machines. The game itself, with long pauses between races, was overrun by generations seeking ceaseless engagement from their entertainment. The sport aged quickly.
Just as dramatically, the breeding paradigm shifted. Wealthy gentleman breeders who bred their own racing stock were replaced by commercial farms that bred horses for auction at lucrative yearling and two-year-old sales, horse flippers running foaling mills. The genetic composition of the American thoroughbred was altered across several generations, infused with speed and muscle by the likes of prepotent sire Storm Cat (whose stud fee once reached $500,000 for a single mating; Storm Cat died last month at age 30). This trend is frequently and sensibly cited as a reason for the Triple Crown drought. The modern thoroughbred is bred to strut through a yearling sales ring like a model on a runway, or to sprint a furlong in nine seconds flat at a two-year-old sale, not to complete three grueling, classic races in five weeks or to win the Belmont Stakes at 1½ miles.
Keeping these latter-day creatures on the racetrack has required a pharmaceutical revolution that the racing industry is currently trying to arrest. The last two Derby-Preakness doubles — Big Brown in 2008 and I’ll Have Another in 2012 — were complicated by the doping rap sheets of their trainers, the since-banned Rick Dutrow in ’08 and last year, Doug O’Neill, whose record has been clean for a year and who will run Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents back in the Preakness after a disappointing 17-place finish in the Derby as the No. 3 betting choice in the field.
GALLERY: Horses which recently just missed the Triple Crown
Then there is the combination of McGaughey and Orb. In the 34 years since McGaughey, 62, was certified as a trainer, he has incurred just one medication violation, and that one occurred more than 29 years ago. A three-year-old filly named Adreamer finished fifth in a maiden race on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24, 1983, at Churchill Downs, and subsequently tested positive for the presence of the local anesthetic procaine. McGaughey received a 10-day suspension that ended four days before Christmas of that same year.
Nearly three decades later, the incident still bothers McGaughey. “It was a vet’s mistake,” says McGaughey, shaking his head, looking down at the moist dirt in his shadow. Adreamer was owned by John A. Bell III, a respected Kentucky breeder and owner, a Princeton graduate and World War II veteran. “One of the greatest men I ever knew,” says McGaughey. “It was one of the hardest things in the world to go over to his house and tell him. His life was all about that filly.”
McGaughey hasn’t had a drug violation since. “I try to do what’s best for the horse,” says McGaughey. “We have to use some therapeutics, but you get in trouble when you try to overdo things. I’m sure it’s hard for these guys with big stables in multiple states. It’s hard for everything to go right.”
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who won the 2006 Belmont Stakes with Jazil and has also won two Breeders Cup races, says, “Shug is a great horseman. He never forces a situation with a horse for attention or personal gain. Never. He just goes about his day to day job.”
Orb, meanwhile, is a majestic bay colt, 16 hands tall and — McGaughey guesses — something between 1,000 and 1,100 pounds. He is muscular, yet not thick, and lean, yet not slender. “He’s an old-time looking horse,” says McGaughey. “He’s not like those speedier, blockier-type horses that are very popular today. He’s a homebred, with a homebred pedigree on the female side, and I think he’s a throwback to all that.”
Orb was bred by owners Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps and Stuart S. Janney III, longtime horsemen with deep roots in the history of the game. Like earlier generations, they breed horses with the primary goal of racing them, hence their emphasis is on steady development, rather than sudden growth for a stunning appearance in the sales ring or while working a fast eighth of a mile at a two-year-old sale. (Orb does race using the controversial, but permitted, race-day anti-bleeder medication Lasix, as did all 19 starters in the Kentucky Derby. Janney and Phipps are influential members of The Jockey Club, which has opposed the use of Lasix on race day. McGaughey says, “I wish all the races could be drug-free, but that isn’t the way it is, so right now we’re just going along with the rules the way they are. If everyone ran without Lasix, that would be fine with me.”)
After three and a half decades, it’s foolish to describe any horse — Spectacular Bid, Smarty Jones or the reincarnation of Man o’ War — as seemingly capable of winning the Triple Crown; it’s simply been too long. Yet here we tread, perilously. Orb’s running style keeps him out of trouble, yet he has shown the tactical speed (in winning the Florida Derby, his last Derby prep) to lurk close to a slow pace. His acceleration is breathtaking, and unlike many big horses, he doesn’t struggle to maintain speed and agility on turns. It will be difficult to take him out of a race with strategy alone. Cynics will wonder if he benefited more than others from the sloppy Churchill track, and that won’t be clear until — and if — Pimlico comes up fast on Saturday afternoon.
McGaughey leans on what he’s seen for the last two months, since the five weeks between Orb’s victories in the Feb. 23 Fountain of Youth Stakes and the March 30 Florida Derby.
“When he started coming along, I mean, everything changed,” says McGaughey. “I was amazed. His physical appearance changed, his attitude, his maturity. He started to get an air about him. I’m not sure the guy next door would notice that, but good horses know they’re good horses. He started to act like he knew he was a good horse. And he likes to train.”
McGaughey shook his head. He didn’t look for a slab of wood to rap with his knuckles, but no doubt he was thinking about it.
“I don’t know when it’s going to go wrong,” he said. “But it’s all going great right now.” He is at home with his horses, which is true of most trainers, but more true of some. “I like to spend a lot of time at the barn,” says McGaughey. “I’m not a grandstand guy. When I was first starting out in the business, people would come to me and ask if I wanted to train some of their horses, and I’d tell them, ‘If you’re looking for somebody to have lunch with you, don’t hire me.’ I like to spend a lot of time at the barn.”
Yet because this is racing, with its uncompromising hours, there is both pain and pleasure in that, as well. “I’ve made a lot of sacrifices in my life to do this,” says McGaughey. His sons had barely begun school when McGaughey was divorced in the mid 1990s; they grew up with their mother while McGaughey lived in New York. He met his second wife, Alison Hoffman, on a racetrack in Florida; she had grown up in the shadow of Monmouth Park in New Jersey and has worked nearly every job in the business. “There’s not a whole lot of social life in this job,” says McGaughey. “Luckily, I’m with somebody who that doesn’t matter to, either.” His barn staff is clogged with longtime employees, including first assistant trainer Buzzy Tenney, 62, who grew up in Lexington with McGaughey and has been at his side since Phipps hired McGaughey in 1985.
In the week since winning the Derby, McGaughey has lost of a chunk of his anonymity. If Orb wins the Preakness, he will lose the rest. The stakes will be raised exponentially, as suddenly his sport will have viewers. McGaughey already bears the scars of a lifetime’s wins and losses. He saddled the great filly Personal Ensign to a perfect 13-0 record that ended with a stirring victory over Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the 1988 Breeders Cup. He also watched Pine Island break down in the 2006 Cup. Those are just two.
In his early 30′s, he worked for trainer Frank Whiteley, who trained Damascus and Ruffian, the best among many other great horses. “I remember one day, I was sitting on a box at the barn and Mr. Whiteley came over and said, ‘You like this, don’t you?’ I said ‘Yes sir, I do.’ He said, ‘Well, I tried to discourage my son from doing this [David Whitely became a successful trainer]. Let me tell you something, Shug, for every good thing that happens in this business, there’s going to be 20 bad ones.’ I’m a competitive guy, and I hate to lose. But when I get discouraged, I think about what Mr. Whiteley told me.”
McGaughey stands nodding in the rain, looking out far beyond the moment to a place where those good and bad things are squared up in perpetuity, where a Kentucky Derby and just maybe a Preakness and Belmont Stakes are piled higher than all the losses on the other side. And where a horse from another time makes history.