May 8th, 2013

Billy Reed: No Derby worries for Shug now


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Billy Reed: No Derby worries for Shug now
Shug McGaughey / photo from NYRA

The rain that drenched Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May was not a warm spring rain. It was a mean, cold, depressing rain that forced many in the Kentucky Derby crowd of 151,000 to hide their sporty clothes under ponchos. It was, in the mind of trainer Claude R. “Shug” McGaughey, an Easy Goer kind of rain. His sense of deja vu was real as the rivulets of water pouring from the roof of Barn 43 on the backstretch.

Now 62 years old, gray and bespectacled, McGaughey was philosophical, almost fatalistic, as he thought about his chances to win the Derby with Orb, a late-blooming colt co-owned by Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps and his first cousin, Stuart Janney III. He wanted it badly, more than he admitted in his interviews with the Derby media horde. But he knew he couldn’t will it. He knew it was strictly up to fate. Still, he wondered.

“It did cross my mind that a day like today might have cost us one Kentucky Derby,” McGaughey said late in the afternoon. 

He was talking about the day 24 years earlier when he sent Easy Goer, anointed by the New York media as “the next Secretariat,” to the post in Derby 115. If anything, it was even colder and wetter that day than it was Saturday. Unable to get hold of the track, Easy Goer splashed home second to Sunday Silence. Gone was the myth that had grown around the big bay. In its place was an overwhelming sense of disappointment that gnawed at McGaughey from that day to this.

A native Kentuckian who fell hopelessly in love with the race track as a kid and quit the University of Mississippi to answer the sport’s siren call, McGaughey began his career in 1974 as a $40-a-week hotwalker at Churchill Downs, sleeping four to a room with his buddies at the Colonial Hotel on Dixie Highway.

He quickly moved up the ladder until he went to New York as an assistant trainer to David Whiteley, the son of the revered Frank Whiteley, who still is known best as the man who trained the great filly Ruffian for the Janney family of Maryland.

In a 1975 match race against Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, the filly broke a leg and was taken to a hospital near Belmont Park. For hours, surgeons and veterinarians tried to save her. But it all proved in vain. Her fiery competitive nature would not allow her to tolerate a cast. When the news came that she had to be humanely destroyed, the horse world wept. 

After taking out his trainer’s license in 1979, McGaughey quickly showed the Kentucky racing circuit that he had been born to train. If not exactly a savant, he was close. Intense and quiet and serious, McGaughey studied his horses until he figured out what made them tick. By 1984, in only his fifth year as a head trainer, two of McGaughey’s horses made the Kentucky Derby, finishing sixth (Pine Circle) and 16th (Vanlandingham) to Swale, who carried the iconic Claiborne Farm’s solid orange silks to victory. 

It was the first time – but hardly the last – that the fates of McGaughey and Claiborne would be entwined. 

One of Claiborne’s most revered clients was the Phipps family of New York. When the talk is about old money, the Phippses have to be in the conversation. In 1907, when Henry Carnegie Phipps married Gladys Mills, it was a union of a steel magnate and an heiress to a family fortune founded during the California Gold Rush. 

Her husband wasn’t nearly as interested in the thoroughbred business as Gladys, who plunged into it as first an owner and later a breeder. One of the horses she bred was the famed Seabiscuit, who captivated the nation by beating 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral in a 1938 match race. That was about the same time she met A.B. “Bull” Hancock, the master of Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. They struck up a business relationship by which Mrs. Phipps, who never owned a farm of her own, would board her mares and stallions at Claiborne.

Running her horses in the name of Wheatley Stable (named for a road near the Phipps estate on the north shore of Long Island), Mrs. Phipps bred a colt she named Bold Ruler. Although he was only fourth in the 1957 Kentucky Derby won by Calumet Farm’s Iron Liege, he scored a sizzling Preakness victory two weeks later. When he was retired to stud in 1958, Bold Ruler naturally was sent to Bull Hancock at Claiborne Farm, where he was bred exclusively to well-bred mares owned by Claiborne clients. 

One of those clients was Christopher T. Chenery of The Meadow Stable in Virginia. In 1965, after years of sending mares to Bold Ruler, Chenery worked out a deal with the Phipps family: Each year he would send two of his best mares to Claiborne to be bred to Bold Ruler. Then, after the foals were born, they would flip a coin. The winner could pick whichever of the foals he wanted to race in his colors and the loser would take the other. 

In 1970, because of various breeding problems, three young thoroughbreds by Bold Ruler were in the coin flip. Representing the Phipps family, trainer Eddie Neloy won the toss and picked a filly out of the mare Somethingroyal. That  left The Meadow Stable with Bold Ruler colts, one of them also out of Somethingroyal. That was the one Christopher Chenery’s daughter, Helen “Penny” Tweedy, named Secretariat. 

On Aug. 28, 1972, when Secretariat was just beginning to turn heads at the track, Bull Hancock died unexpectedly after a short illness. It was up to the trustees of his estate – Charlie Kenney, William Haggin Perry and Ogden Phipps – to decide which of Bull’s sons, Arthur III and Seth, would replace their father as president of Claiborne. 

Although Arthur was older, he also was something of a playboy, wild and headstrong, and he had clashed with Ogden Phipps while working for him as a summertime groom – in the 1960s. So when the trustees opted for Seth, Arthur was so angry that he gave up his interest in Claiborne and started his own operation, which he called Stone Farm, down the road. 

Based on the promise Secretariat showed as a 2-year-old, Seth syndicated him for a world-record $6.08 million well before the 1973 Triple Crown. When the colt struggled home third in the Wood Memorial, his final Derby prep, Seth, only 23, was subject to considerable second-guessing in the media. But he became a boy genius when Secretariat ran the greatest Triple Crown series of any horse before or since, setting stakes and track records in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. 

As fate would have it, Arthur beat Seth to the Derby winner’s circle, taking the roses in 1982 with the long shot Gato Del Sol. But Seth and Claiborne countered two years later when Swale prevailed for trainer Woody Stephens and jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. Unfortunately, the Phipps stable had pretty much dropped off the charts. The family hadn’t had a Derby starter since 1967 and Ogden Phipps, realizing he might run out of time before his Derby dream could be fulfilled, turned to Seth for advice about hiring a new trainer. 

Without hesitation, Seth recommended Shug McGaughey. He had been impressed not only with Shug’s horsemanship, but with his quiet and humble demeanor, his work ethic and his old-fashioned patience. When Shug got the phone call from Phipps late in 1985, he couldn’t disperse his public stable fast enough. “It’s a challenge,” he said, “but it will be kind of fun to fool around with those kind of horses.”

By this time the elder Phipps was grooming his son, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, to take over the stable. Since Mrs. Phipps had campaigned Bold Ruler, the family’s best horse was Buckpasser, who was forced to miss the 1966 Derby due to injury. Buckpasser’s trainer was Neloy, who sometimes chafed under the family’s hands-on approach. 

“The old man (Ogden) comes out in the morning,” he once told a fellow trainer, “and then the kid (Dinny) takes over in the afternoon.” 

But none of this daunted McGaughey, who moved into a house on the Phipps’ Long Island estate and plunged into the task of putting the stable back on the map. It took him three years. In 1988, he came to the Breeders Cup at Churchill with such a strong hand that it was known as “Murderer’s Shedrow.” His aces included the unbeaten filly Personal Ensign, a 3-year-old named Striking the Gold who was a contender in the Classic, and Easy Goer, the favorite in the Juvenile. 

The day was cold, gloomy and wet. The track was sloppy. Shug’s only victory came when Personal Ensign ran down reigning Derby winner Winning Colors to win the Distaff at the wire, enabling her to retire with a 13-for-13 record. When Easy Goer failed to handle the sloppy track, McGaughey felt that, despite Personal Ensign’s historic victory, he had failed the Phipps family. 

He shouldn’t have fretted so much. The Phippses were grateful to McGaughey for putting them back atop the game. In fact, when Stuart Janney Jr. died in 1988, it was Ogden Phipps who brokered a deal between Stuart III and McGaughey by which Shug would add the Janney horses to his stable. 

Badly as he felt after the 1988 Breeders Cup, Shug felt even worse, much worse, the next spring. It didn’t help matters that Sunday Silence, who beat Easy Goer by more than two lengths, was owned by Arthur Hancock III. In a twist of fate well suited for the series Downton Abbey, Arthur’s colt denied the lifelong dream of Ogden Phipps, the man who had helped deny him the presidency of Claiborne. 

Nobody felt worse than McGaughey. He felt he had the best horse in the country. Had he done anything wrong? Could he have done anything better or differently? How was it possible that Easy Goer would catch a sloppy track at Churchill two straight years? It was scant consolation when Easy Goer came only a nose short of catching Sunday Silence in the Preakness, then destroyed his rival with an eight-length victory in the Belmont Stakes. 

From that Derby Day until this one, McGaughey brought only one horse to Churchill Downs for the Derby. He saddled Saarland for Cynthia Phipps in 2002 and finished 10th to War Emblem. This time the day was sunny and the track fast. Unfortunately for McGaughey, Saarland just wasn’t good enough. 

At the beginning of Orb’s career, McGaughey wasn’t thinking about the Kentucky Derby for him. In fact, he seemed destined to be another Saarland instead of another Easy Goer. The colt was co-bred by Stuart Janney III and Dinny Phipps, but only after Janney had enlisted Seth Hancock’s support to persuade Phipps to keep the mare Lady Liberty instead of selling her.

“The mare had had a difficult production history,” Janney said. “She had cone colt that was pretty much a disaster. Dinny was a little bit impatient about what was going on.”

“I didn’t like the mare,” Phipps admitted.”I tried to persuade my cousin to sell her. He outsmarted me and bred her to Malibu Moon, and here we are.” 

Orb didn’t get McGaughey to begin thinking seriously about the Derby until after he came from off the pace to win the Florida Derby on March 30 at Gulfstream Park. The savant in McGaughey kicked in. Even when jockey John Velasquez gave up the mount on Orb in favor of the unbeaten Verrazano, Shug only shrugged. He turned immediately to Joel Rosario, who’s only the hottest jockey in the nation.

No Derby trainer has ever been greeted with more warmth and affection than McGaughey received this year. From the moment he brought Orb to Churchill Downs to the moment he left town, the onetime Churchill hotwalker was greeted like the prodigal son. His Hall-of-Fame career merited that sort of respect, certainly, but there was more. It had to do with his uncompromising sense of old-fashioned horsemanship, his respect for the game and the people in it, and his humility. Everybody wanted to hug Shug.

The way it worked out, this Derby was all about old money and old school. The Phipps and Janney fortunes go back to the Roarin’ Twenties and beyond. Wasn’t that Jay Gatsby on the red carpet? Didn’t everyone on Millionaires’ Row come to the track in a Stutz Bearcat or a Packard roadster? It was a Derby for The Establishment, a throwback to the days when the best stables were owned by robber barons and steel magnates and Wall Street moguls.

Somewhere in the middle of the madness, a 5-foot-5 man wearing a plain gray suit watched the Derby on a TV screen. As Shug had instructed, Rosario took Orb back at the start and kept him out of trouble. It was a patient ride for a young jock, but what else would you expect from a McGaughey rider? When Orb took command at the 16th pole, Shug’s round face began to form into delighted misbelief. And then, finally, here came the full McGaughey smile, a sight to treasure. Shug doesn’t smile often, because he’s a serious man, but when he does, it’s a baby’s beam of a smile.

He was near tears as he did his national TV on the winner’s stand. Nobody really knew everything that had made this moment possible, going back to the day in the 1930s when the Phipps family hooked up with Bull Hancock. Think of the generations of disappointment and futility. Think of Easy Goer. Think of the patience that sets Old Money apart from the Nouveaux Riche who will put a horse in the Derby, any kind of horse, just to be part of the action.

Typically, McGaughey thanked everybody – the Phipps and Janney families, his jockey, his barn crew, the fans – before he got around to himself. He said he couldn’t put his feelings into words. He talked about the love that was showered on him everywhere he turned in the days leading up to the Derby.

“The way it’s going to change my life is … I don’t have to worry about it anymore,” said McGaughey. “I worried about it for a while. I’m not going to let anybody know that, but inside it was always there.” 

Ever since Easy Goer, it was there. Now it’s gone. And a funny thing about the weather: The rain stopped a half-hour before the Derby and didn’t resume until a half-hour after it was over. Make what you will of it.


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