Teresa Genaro is a high school English teacher and freelance turf writer whose work has appeared in a variety of turf publications. A former and erstwhile resident of Saratoga Springs, she lives in Brooklyn and writes about New York racing at Brooklyn Backstretch.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and Shug McGaughey sits placidly in a chair in the shedrow of barn 20. Intent on his Blackberry, he seems pleasantly oblivious: to approaching visitors; to an impending storm making itself known in stirring winds and scudding clouds; to a tempest of another kind, one created by the media as he gets ready to take a shot at the Preakness and at making racing history.
When he finally looks up, he is, perhaps surprisingly after the last week, affably inclined to talk, even when the name of That Other Derby Horse is brought up.
“I was looking forward to going to Pimlico with Easy Goer,” he says, “because we didn’t have any comparison. Was Sunday Silence that much better, or did we just not run our race?”
Like Orb, Easy Goer was favored in his Kentucky Derby, in 1989. McGaughey is not alone in having run two Kentucky Derby favorites: at least 16 trainers have done it. His 50% win percentage with Derby favorites, though, is surpassed by only one man: Henry Forrest, whose only two Derby starters, Kauai King in 1966 and Forward Pass in 1968, were both favored and both won (the latter via disqualification). Each would also win the Preakness, a race Easy Goer lost Preakness by an agonizing nose.
“I was disappointed,” McGaughey acknowledges philosophically. “But I knew we were in the ballgame.
“Then we got back up here, and everything went right for us. I figured that he liked this big old race track better.”
Eight lengths better, apparently, as Easy Goer came home to Belmont and crushed the Triple Crown dreams of his nemesis Sunday Silence, though McGaughey says that’s not what he was thinking about.
“That never came into my thought process,” he maintains, his voice stubbornly Kentucky even after decades in New York . “Never did I want to keep someone from winning the Triple Crown. I was trying to win the Belmont, for Mr. Phipps, probably, more than myself.”
“Mr. Phipps” is Ogden Phipps, father of the Ogden Phipps that co-owns and co-bred Orb, and his name leads to a tangle of memories.
“Mr. Phipps absolutely loved this,” McGaughey says, leaning on the rail that crosses the barn door, gesturing to the shedrow. “He loved his horses.”
In full-fledged reminiscence mode, McGaughey goes on. “A month before he died [at age 93, in 2002], he called me and said, ‘I hear you’re going to work the two-year-olds.’ We were at Palm Beach Downs, and I said, ‘That’s right, Mr. Phipps.’ He said, ‘What day?’ I said, ‘What day do you want to come?’”
McGaughey pauses, clears his throat.
“I wasn’t going to work the two-year-olds,” he says, still with the air of confiding a secret, more than a decade later.
“It was March,” he drawls, emphasizing the month, pausing for a laugh he knows is sure to come. “So I called Dinny [Phipps’ son] and I said, ‘Listen, he’s going to think they’re working, but they’re not.’ At that time, he wouldn’t have known the difference.”
Mr. Phipps came and he watched the horses, sitting on the bleachers at Palm Beach Downs, at the barn afterward eating a sandwich and drinking “some kind of liqueur.” “I don’t know what the hell it was,” McGaughey says.
“And then we’d get the horses out so that he could see them. That’s what he really liked: he liked the young ones, because that was kind of the dream: Is one of these going to be a real good one?”
Standing halfway down the shedrow, McGaughey recalls his first day at barn 20. “They brought me out of Kentucky,” he says. “I was standing down at the end of the barn, and I saw Mr. Phipps come in right here. That might be the longest walk I ever made in my life.”
When Easy Goer was a yearling, he and Mr. Phipps went to Kentucky to see the Alydar colt. “He was out of Relaxing, so that was a pretty big deal to him,” he remembers--Relaxing, who won the Firenze and the Gallant Fox and the Assault and the Delaware Handicap, and who was third, beaten less than a length, to John Henry in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
“We were on the plane coming back, and he said, ‘I guess the Relaxing’s the best one,’ McGaughey goes on. “What was I going to say, no? ‘I don’t think so’? I said, ‘I guess so.’
“He would have gotten a huge thrill out of last Saturday, but he would have gotten a huge thrill out of it for me…for us. Really and truly, that’s the kind of guy he was.”
In the immediate aftermath of winning the Kentucky Derby, McGaughey said several times that he wished he’d won the Derby when he was younger so that he didn’t have to worry about it anymore. With a week to reflect, he’s reconsidered.
“I don’t know if that’s exactly true,” he admits. “I think I probably have more appreciation for it now than I would have in 1989. I just think after wanting to do something for so long that I appreciate it a lot more now. People have been able to kind of look and watch me over the years, and maybe they’ve got a little more appreciation, too, of the time we’ve put in, not only with the horses that are here now but for however long I’ve been doing this.”
The sound of a rake in the shedrow methodically, meticulously underscores his words, the literal and symbolic accompaniment to his paeans to the people who work with him as he reels off the names of half a dozen people who were with when he had Easy Goer and who still work with him now, among them Easy Goer’s groom, Victor…. who is now one of the barn’s night watchmen.
“That’s made the whole journey that much more enjoyable to me: to watch it and watch the people appreciate it. The morale around here is pretty high,” he says, in what may be the understatement of the week.
Slipping easily between memories that go back a quarter century and those that go back a week, he smiles as he thinks about 1989.
“To go to the Derby with the Derby favorite…it was kind of cool, you know?” he asks rhetorically. “Going this year, it was pretty cool, too, you know, but I had a whole different perspective on it than I had when I went down there the last time.
“After the Florida Derby, I told the people around me, ‘We’re going to go there and have fun. I was excited. With Easy Goer, I was probably a lot more uptight. I was younger and I probably thought I was a little sharper than I really was.”
The wind has picked up, and the cell phones start to quiver with storm alerts. Clouds looming, the sky darkening, McGaughey steps back toward the tranquility of his shedrow.
“It’s been a remarkable journey for me, from where I started to where I’m standing today,” he observes. “I’m hugely appreciative. I was thinking about that driving back here today, how lucky I was in 1986 when I got the call--not to be around these kind of horses, but to be around these kind of people.”
On Sunday afternoon, a bouquet of roses lay outside barn 20 on the Belmont backstretch, their colors nearly matching the red paint on the sign identifying the barn as the home of the Phipps Stable. The bouquet wasn’t quite as imposing as the blanket of roses that had been presented the day before, its meaning less grandiose. It was not a celebration of victory; it was, rather, a welcome home.
A handful of people waited for news of the van en route from Long Island MacArthur Airport, the van carrying half a dozen horses that had flown from Louisville that morning. The names of the horses were not unfamiliar: Hungry Island, the graded stakes winner second by a neck in this year’s Churchill Distaff Turf Mile, and Point of Entry, the multiple Grade I winner, scratched, disappointingly, from the Wood Reserve Turf Classic were among those heading home.
But they and their stablemates had to wait their turn to get off the van…pride of place was given to the winner of Kentucky Derby 139, who walked down the chute and into his shedrow attended by a small shadow of paparazzi and fans, eager to welcome Orb home.
It had been months since he’d been at Belmont: after breaking his maiden at Aqueduct last November, he’d headed south, spending the winter at Payson Park before traveling to Churchill Downs to contest the Kentucky Derby. He might have headed straight to Baltimore from Louisville, but instead, his trainer Shug McGaughey opted to come back to Belmont for a week or so.
McGaughey’s week has been tougher than Orb’s: the trainer has made multiple media appearances, done countless interviews. Orb stayed close to barn 20 until Wednesday morning, when he headed to the track in the rain for a jog, then went back on Thursday to gallop. He’s expected to breeze on Monday before leaving for Pimlico on Tuesday.
For the fourth time since 2003, New Yorkers will have the chance to root home one of their own in the Preakness, in the hope that he’ll come back to Belmont in June with a chance to win the Triple Crown. The roots of Team Orb run deep in the Empire State: McGaughey has trained here for decades, and Orb’s owners, Stuart S. Janney III and Phipps Stable, have been pillars of racing in this state, as owners, breeders, and members of NYRA’s board.
So we kick off this year’s Belmont Stakes blog by welcoming Orb back to Belmont. Over the next month we’ll follow him to Pimlico, and we hope back home for a run at the first Triple Crown in 35 years.
We’ll also, as usual, dig into the history of the Belmont Stakes; we’ll look at some of the other horses that will be running on Belmont day; we’ll check out the latest addition to NYRA’s stakes calendar, a spring version of the popular New York Showcase Day on June 1.
So…welcome back. Welcome back to Belmont. Welcome back to the blog. And welcome back to Shug and Orb, winners of Kentucky Derby 139.
I’m not one of those New Yorkers who thinks that our city is the center of universe and that there’s nowhere better than here. There’s a lot to love about New York; there’s also a lot that’s maddening, if not exasperating, if not infuriating.
There are certain New York things that I love with an almost unreasoning affection. I love coffee from the carts on the street. I love the Empire State Building when it’s red and green at Christmas time. I love walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. I love the subway.
And I love the Belmont. I know that its success and its relevance often depend on the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and lacking a potential Triple Crown winner, it can be something of an afterthought in a Triple Crown season, its winners dismissed as the best of what’s left of the 3-year-olds after a rigorous six months of racing.
So when I’ll Have Another was scratched on Friday morning, after we had been assured that the horse would be OK, I thought...It’s OK. It’s still Belmont day. It’s still going to be great.
But what if it weren’t? What if nobody came? What if everyone were too disappointed to enjoy themselves? What if, as the forecasters suddenly started saying, it rained all day?
But they did come, and they did enjoy themselves. All of those people who scrambled to buy tickets to try to see a Triple Crown winner decided to come anyway (or gave or sold their tickets to people who wanted to be there), and they cheered and bet and ate and drank their way through 13 races, through clouds and sunshine and only a few, a very few drops of rain.
By the time the Belmont rolled around, while it might not have been exactly OK that they weren’t going to see a horse try to win the Triple Crown, they seemed to have made peace with that reality and given themselves over to the thrill of the race itself.
I sat with my brother and our friends for the race, and in front of me, middle-aged men and women formed a kick line during “New York, New York,” moving to the sound of the thousands around us singing as the horses came on to the track. And yeah, I got goose bumps, because it was one of those perfect New York moments, and one that we get only once a year.
And when it was over, it was Union Rags, who romped over this track last fall in the Champagne. We learned his story – that his owner sold him, then dreamt about him, then bought him back, for a lot more money. We watched him flounder this spring…and on Saturday, we watched him squeeze through an impossibly small hole, guided by John Velazquez, one of New York’s own, who will go into the Hall of Fame this year.
This year’s Belmont Stakes wasn’t we thought, or hoped, it would be. But by Saturday night, by the time Phyllis Wyeth had sped down the ramp to the winner’s circle in her wheelchair, by the time she clutched the Belmont Stakes trophy with Michael Matz, by the time Velazquez had explained one more time how he and Union Rags made it through that little space on the rail…we had another day of Belmont Stakes memories, a day of speed and class and redemption and a dream come true, a day when it was maybe OK to think that at least for a little while, New York was the center of the (racing) universe.
Though the first Belmont Stakes was run in 1867, it wasn’t run at Belmont Park until 1905.
The race was inaugurated at Jerome Park in what is now the Bronx, where it stayed until 1889, when it moved to Morris Park, also in the Bronx. Run there until Morris Park closed in 1904, the Belmont Stakes made its debut at its eponymous track on May 24, 1905.
Belmont Park had opened earlier that month with much fanfare; days of coverage were devoted to the opening of what one headline called, “The World’s Finest Race Course.” One preview proclaimed, “The biggest thing in the shape of a race course that ever has been conceived and achieved, will be opened for racing on Thursday of this week.”
Among the splashy track’s new features was the mile and a half oval with which we are all familiar, but this was not the “Belmont course,” according to an early map of the new park.
The Belmont had been run at various distances in its history, from 1 1/8 miles to a mile and five furlongs; the “Belmont course,” reportedly the course over which the Belmont Stakes would be run, was a mile and three furlongs.
Another feature of the new track was the direction in which the horses would run; at the new Belmont Park, races wouldn’t be run counter-clockwise, as was the custom in the United States. At Belmont, horses would run the other way, an idea that the Times said “would appeal to many racegoers.”
In its voluminous coverage, the Times noted visitors’ first reactions to the new track, which are not so dissimilar from those who come to Belmont for the first time now. “...They realized for the first time the immensity of the new racing plant…for size and spaciousness there is nothing in racing like its great infield…Bigness is stamped all over this newest and hugest of American racing plants.”
A filly, Ruthless, had won the very first running of the Belmont, in 1867 at Jerome Park, so it was perhaps fitting that another filly, Tanya, would win the first running at the track named for the man who gave his name to the race. But as the map indicates, the race that Tanya won bears no resemblance to the race that this year’s 11 Belmont Stakes starters will run. Says the 1905 race recap, “The race was won over the Belmont course, the start being made in the middle of the back stretch of the training track, and the horses, after making one turn on that course, coming on the main track and finishing down the regular stretch.”
If we think that jockeys unfamiliar with the Belmont course now are at a disadvantage, imagine what a newcomer must have felt about negotiating a right-hand turn and two tracks just to find the finish line. Jockey Eugene Hildebrand on Tanya apparently had no trouble.
Tanya’s Belmont was run at a mile and a quarter, not tomorrow’s distance of a mile and a half, and the 11 jockeys will have to negotiate only one track, but regardless of where the race is run or how long it is, the winner of the Belmont Stakes gets to say that he--or she--conquered the Test of the Champion.
“Belmont Park Open, Metropolitan A Tie.” New York Times, May 5, 1905.
“Belmont Park, The World’s Finest Race Course.” New York Times, April 30, 1905.
“Tanya Won Belmont By A Neck from Blandy.” New York Times, May 25, 1905.