Wednesday, May 1, 2013

2013 Kentucky Derby Preview Part I: In Praise of Shug McGaughey

Ask most casual horse racing fans who they think is the best trainer and you'll most likely get Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert in response.  We couldn't really argue with either of those selections.  Pletcher has won the trainer Eclipse award five times, has been the leading money trainer by money earned six times, and has won 40 training titles at premier meets up and down the East Coast.  He's also won two Triple Crown races, 7 Breeders Cup races, and approximately 6,000 graded stakes race.  Baffert has been equally impressive, winning 9 Triple Crown races, 7 Breeders Cup races, and a slew of other Grade 1 races while taking home 4 Eclipse Awards for best trainer.

A slightly less conventional but equally good answer would be any of Bill Mott, Dale Romans or Steve Asmussen.  Mott hasn't been that big a player in the Triple Crown (Drosselmeyer in 2010 was his only win) but has 8 Breeders Cup races to his name and won the training title at Saratoga 9 times.  Everyone knows that Mott can win with pretty much any type of horse on any surface.  Romans has been a little more of a recent revelation but his work with "underdog" horses like Shackleford and Tapitsfly lead him to last year's Eclipse title.  Asmusssen trained two of the best horses from the last decade (Curlin, Rachel Alexandra), won the most races in America 6 straight years, and has a pair of Eclipse Awards to his name.

You couldn't go wrong with any of these five men as your trainer.  But if we could pick anyone active to train our horse, without a question, we'd take Shug McGaughey.  Shug's work is a little less known to those who aren't hardcore racing fans, but the Kentuckyian is one of the most respected trainers in America.  He was elected to the racing Hall of Fame in 2004, having trained:
  • Personal Ensign, who went 14-for-14 and was on everyone's shortlist of greatest older females until Zenyatta came along;
  • Easy Goer, who we'll discuss more below, but is a Hall of Fame 3 year old.;
  • Lure, the winner of two consecutive Breeders Cup Miles;
  • My Flag, the daughter of Personal Ensign, who won the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies, three over Grade 1s, and finished in the money in the Belmont;
  • Storm Flag Flying, the daughter of My Flag who also won the BC Juvenile Fillies, making it three generations of BC winners;
  • Inside Information, who won the Breeders Cup Distaff over her highly accomplished stablemate Heavenly Prize by a dozen lengths;
  • Breeders Cup winners Dancing Spree and Pleasant Home; and
  • Several dozen Grade 1 races with horses whose names have largely been forgotten, such as Pine Island, Versailles Treaty, Glitter Woman, Finder's Fee, Strolling Along, Good Reward and Aldiza.
The best day of Shug's career was undoubtedly October 16, 1993, which was dubbed Super Shug Day by most Belmont denizens.  Belmont Park held its "Breeders Cup Preview" day with six races directly tied to Breeders Cup races to come in a few weeks.  Shug won five of them, as Heavenly Prize and Dispute dominated the filly races, Lure won the mile turf race, Strolling Along won the 3yo turf race, and Miner's Mark pulled off an upset in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.  When Richard Mandella won 4 Breeders Cup races on a single day in 2003, Super Shug Day was what most people compared it to.

There has been very little that McGaughey has done wrong.  His horses are never rushed, they're rarely spotted poorly, and always have good, classical breeding.  On top of that, we can speak from personal experience that he's an absolutely wonderful guy on a personal level - he has never hesitated to stop to talk about racing or Kentucky basketball with anyone and knows that fans and bettors are the fulcrum of the sport.
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There are two big reasons why Shug isn't well-known to the general public.  The first is that he essentially trains for two owners: the Phipps family and Stuart Janney (of Bessemer Trust fame).  Both are classic old-school owners that eschew auctions and publicity.  They're throwbacks to the days of the Vanderbilts and Calmuet Farms dominating racing, and they keep their lineage alive by keeping their mares, breeding them to blue-blooded stallions, not selling off their progeny, and only letting their horses run when they're ready.  You will not see Stuart Janney or Dinny Phipps holding a circus press conference like IEAH Stables or Jess Jackson, or having a vanity entry in the Kentucky Derby.  It's just not their style.

The second reason is that Shug has been extremely quiet on the Triple Crown trail, as much of his success in the last 20 years has come with females and older males. He's run six horses in the Kentucky Derby, and only one since 1989 - the extremely disappointing Saarland, who ran a lackluster 10th.  He hasn't had a memorable moment or entrant in the Preakness since 1989.  His only runner of note in the Belmont was My Flag's quasi-historic 3rd in 1995 - which is now 18 years ago.

Shug's biggest moment in the Triple Crown came in 1989 when he brought Super Horse Easy Goer to the Derby.  Easy Goer's greatness was obvious - he was the champion 2 year old colt, won the Wood, and was a gorgeous animal.  Unfortunately, Easy Goer picked a tough year to compete and lost the Derby and Preakness to nemesis Sunday Silence, the latter producing arguably the greatest race of the last 30 years:

Easy Goer gained revenge in the Belmont winning by 5 lengths and running the second-fastest time ever behind Secretariat, then followed up with wins in the Whitney, Travers, Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup - a feat that has never been matched and will almost certainly never be tried, as the 4 races are in a span of less than 10 weeks.  He went to the Breeders Cup Classic to try for Horse of the Year...only to fall a length shy of Sunday Silence once again.

Sbug's other great opportunity for Triple Crown glory came in 1998 with Coronado's Quest, and while most people have forgotten about this horse, we'd bet that private Shug considers him the Great Horse that got away  After dominating the Aqueduct 2yo circuit by winning 3 stakes races, Coronado's Quest shipped to Florida with a ton of hype as the alternative to reigning Horse of the Year Favorite Trick.  While showing an immense amount of talent, he also showed a ton of immaturity, as he was impossible to handle during pre-race warmups, and couldn't be easily saddled before some races.  He tried the Florida prep circuit but his temperament lead him to become an uncontrollable speedball, at which point Shug essentially gave up on trying to get the horse in front of 160,000 people at Louisville and changed course to prestigious but not Triple Crown races.  What then followed was a stellar 5-race winning streak in the Wood, Riva Ridge, Dwyer, Haskell and Travers, where he beat every 3yo of note (except Real Quiet, who didn't race again after the Belmont).  He ended his career on something of a down note - a 5th place finish in the Breeders Cup Classic, after leading the entire way and meeting one of the best fields ever assembled, and a loss in the Cigar Mile when he was over the top.  But nobody ever doubted that this horse was talented and had the ability to stay a distance.  Had the horse's head been screwed on straight in early May, we're convinced he would have won the Derby and Real Quiet's name would be lost to trivia.

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As amazing as Super Shug Day was, Saturday stands the chance to be the best day of McGaughey's career.  After running his talented mare Hungry Island in the Distaff Mile, in the race before the Derby, the Woodford Reserve, a 1 1/8 mile race on the turf, Point of Entry is going for his second win of the year, having beaten Derby and Dubai World Cup winner Animal Kingdom in his last.  Point of Entry was one of the best horses to train last year, having won 4 straight Grade 1's on the turf only to fall short in the BC Turf mainly because of a horrible ride.  The Woodford looked like a walkover for Point of Entry until Monday, when Charles LoPresti announced that 2012 Horse of the Year Wise Dan would be running as well.  With all due respect to the Derby, this is the matchup that most racing fans have wanted to see, as these are the two best horses in training in America.  It's a fascinating race from many angles - it's a little longer than most of Wise Dan's successes, it's shorter than Point of Entry likes - but if POE knocks off Wise Dan, he immediately goes to the front of the line for 2013 Horse of the Year honors.  We honestly think the race is pretty much a 50/50 proposition between the two horses and can't wait to see them square off.

Then comes the Derby, where Shug has entered Orb.  As we've noted, this is the first runner he's had in the Derby in 11 years, and unlike Saarland, he has a big shot.  After taking 4 starts to break his maiden, he won a nice optional claiming race at Gulfstream, and was advanced into the Fountain of Youth.  There, he sat well off a hot pace and closed like a rocket on the far turn and got by 3-5 favorite Violence in the stretch to win.  He then returned in the Florida Derby against favored Itsmyluckyday - who had looked dominant at Gulfstream to date - and Breeders Cup Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby.  This time, Orb sat fairly close to a moderate pace and took over in the final yards to win by almost 3 lengths.  While not a fast time against the clock, it was a slow-paced race and his stretch run left little doubt that he would relish 10 furlongs.  And it showed great versatility, as proved to be a horse that didn't need to close from the back of the pack to win.

While we're going to analyze the Derby field as objectively as possible over the next two days, we will admit here and now that we're rooting for Shug.  A Derby win would be the career validation that one of the nicest guys in racing deserves.  And a welcome tonic to a lot of the bad press that racing has received over the last couple of years.  If Orb comes through, one of the good guys and greatest trainers in the sport won the big race.  It would truly be something to celebrate.

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