Shug McGaughey has spent a lifetime at the track, and still loves it
BALTIMORE - There are few better places to hang out than at a racetrack, whose sights and sounds can soothe the soul. Trainer Shug McGaughey is a backstretch lifer, and after more than 40 years there, it's still his happy place.
"I'm not a vacation guy. I like to be at the barn," he said. "That's where I'm comfortable, and that's where I want to be. That's how I monitor things. I do a lot from watch and feel."
McGaughey loves what he has seen this spring from Kentucky Derby winner Orb, who drew post 1 in a field of nine Wednesday and was installed as the even-money favorite for Saturday's 138th Preakness Stakes. Oddsmaker Frank Carulli made Mylute, fifth in the Derby, the 5-1 second choice because "they're going to bet [jockey] Rosie Napravnik." Departing is at 6-1, with Goldencents 8-1.
McGaughey would have preferred another post but said, "I don't think it will be much of a hindrance. It's not like drawing the rail in the Derby with 20 horses. Joel [Rosario] will be able to get position and do what we need to do."
Ten hours earlier, McGaughey met a large media contingent on an overcast morning near Pimlico's stakes barn and reflected on his career arc from vocationally vague 20-year-old to Hall of Famer.
A few years later, he was a bored business major after spending four semesters at the University of Mississippi. "I was just piddling around," he said in a thick drawl. "I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I wasn't going to be sitting behind a desk."
Although the Vietnam War was raging, he didn't have to worry about the draft anymore because his birth date received a high number -- "280-something" -- in the 1969 lottery. No longer needing a student deferment, "I asked my parents if I could take a semester off. They said, 'OK, but you have to find a job.' "
He became a groom for a friend, David Carr, who was training "seven or eight horses" at Keeneland. McGaughey never went back to college, becoming Carr's assistant before doing the same job for David Whiteley.
"I didn't start out wanting to be a trainer," he said. "It was something that happened as I went along. I was just a lucky guy. A lot of the guys I came up with maybe were better horsemen than me, but I got the lucky breaks and most of them are doing something else today."
McGaughey went out on his own in 1979. He hooked up with the Loblolly Stable of Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony, for whom McGaughey trained his first star, Vanlandingham. Sweeping the Suburban Handicap, Jockey Club Gold Cup and D.C. International earned him the Eclipse Award as top older male in 1985 and gave McGaughey a national profile. That fall, his stable was split between Churchill Downs and Belmont Park, and he disliked the arrangement. That's when he received a life-changing offer he couldn't refuse.
"I was trying to decide whether to go to New York or stay in Louisville," McGaughey said. "That's when the Phippses called me, so they kind of decided it."
He began training for the New York-based Ogden Phipps and his son Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps in November 1985, and the partnership has been among the most successful in racing history. McGaughey, 62, has produced eight champions for them, including the undefeated filly Personal Ensign and 1989 Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer. Dinny Phipps and his cousin Stuart Janney III bred and own the family's first Derby winner. Many give Orb an excellent chance for the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
"I try to block it out, but you get reminded of it quite often," McGaughey said. "It's a thrilling thought. It could all come crashing down Saturday, but I can't wait to run him. First we have to get by the Preakness, and if we do, it'll be a pretty exciting three weeks."