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.”