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Updated on 09/16/2011 8:31AM
BC Countdown - Juvenile Fillies: Shug feeling fine - and yet . . .
ELMONT, N.Y. - He has a career winning percentage of .237, trained the second most winners in Breeders' Cup history, and has won at least one Grade 1 stakes for each of the 17 years he has worked for the Phipps family.
Still, trainer Shug McGaughey is not content.
"I'm very disappointed that we haven't been more competitive than we have been in the last four or five years," McGaughey said during a recent interview.
The source of McGaughey's frustration is the lack of recent success he and the Phippses have had in Thoroughbred racing's biggest events. This spring, McGaughey ran his first horse in the Kentucky Derby in 13 years. Saarland, owned by Cynthia Phipps, finished 10th and was injured.
McGaughey has not had a Preakness starter since Easy Goer lost that heartbreaker to Sunday Silence in 1989. His only Belmont runner since Easy Goer won it, was My Flag, who finished third in 1996.
"It kills him not to be in those big races," said Alison McGaughey, Shug's wife of five years. "He'll watch them, but he'd rather be in them."
McGaughey has won seven Breeders' Cup races from 45 starters, second only to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who is 16 for 135. However, McGaughey has not had a Cup winner since 1995 and has saddled only eight starters since, none finishing better than fourth.
"That's surprising and disappointing," McGaughey said. "If you look, I have more seconds [eight] than wins. I learned a lot along the line about what to take and what not to take. I think a few of the years, we might have a run a horse or two we were taking a shot with, which I don't want to do anymore.
"My thinking now is there are some other good spots to go in if you're not going to have an impact [in a Cup race]."
Saturday, when the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships is held for the 19th time, McGaughey should have a significant impact. He will send out perhaps the strongest favorite on the card in the $1 million Juvenile Fillies: Storm Flag Flying, the Phipps's regally bred and undefeated daughter of Storm Cat.
A Breeders' Cup victory would be a nice ending to a tumultuous year for McGaughey, who underwent triple bypass heart surgery and endured the death of his boss, Phipps family patriarch Ogden Phipps.
If anything, both events only served to fortify McGaughey's competitive streak. When asked if, at age 51, he was as competitive as he was when he first began training, McGaughey said: "Maybe more. I know every one of them can't win, but it still burns me a little bit when they don't. Back then, I thought every one of them should win. Probably the first five or six years I was training, I trained them all to win every time they went over there."
One of them did. Personal Ensign won all 13 of her starts, including the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff. She seemed hopelessly beaten on the final turn of the Distaff, her final race, but ran down Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors to win by a nose. Perfection has since yet to be duplicated by a horse competing at the sport's highest level.
Personal Ensign tops a list of Grade 1-winning fillies who have been the hallmark of McGaughey's career and the Phippses' breeding operation. Heavenly Prize, Inside Information, Queena, Educated Risk, Dispute, and Versailles Treaty are just some of the top fillies McGaughey trained.
Storm Flag Flying is the granddaughter of Personal Ensign. In between them was Storm Flag Flying's dam, My Flag, who won the 1995 Juvenile Fillies. Thus, Storm Flag Flying could become the first third-generation Breeders' Cup winner.
Not to the racetrack born
McGaughey himself is a third - Claude R. McGaughey III. Shug was a nickname given to him by his grandmother at an early age.
"My father was junior, and they called him 'Noonie' because my grandmother couldn't pronounce junior," McGaughey said. "And she just called me Shug."
Despite growing up in Lexington, Ky., the center of the Thoroughbred industry, McGaughey did not come from a racing background. His father worked in the dry cleaning and laundry business and then as a real estate agent.
McGaughey attended business school at the University of Mississippi during the Vietnam war. When the draft lottery was instituted and he drew a high number, he took a semester off and worked for a friend at Keeneland. McGaughey was hooked.
"It was great fun for me because I was learning about something that really did interest me instead of learning about calculus, which didn't interest me," McGaughey said.
McGaughey worked for a number of horsemen in the early 1970's and was a farm trainer for George Steinbrenner. He quit Steinbrenner to go back to the track and hooked up the Whiteley family, first Frank then David.
McGaughey went on his own in 1979, and his career really took off in 1982 when he went to work for John Ed Anthony's Loblolly Stable. In 1985, McGaughey campaigned Vanlandingham to an Eclipse Award as North America's top older horse, the first of seven champions trained by McGaughey.
In November 1985, McGaughey replaced Angel Penna Sr. as the private trainer for the Phippses, the family that at one time owned half of Carnegie Steel and whose Wheatley Stable bred and raced Bold Ruler.
His two best seasons came in 1988 and 1989, when his horses won 28 Grade 1 races and more than $15.4 million in purses. McGaughey won the 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff with Personal Ensign, trained champion 2--year-old Easy Goer, and himself won an Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding trainer.
Training for the Phippses affords McGaughey the opportunity to work with some of the best-bred horses in the world. Still, that doesn't guarantee any more success than for trainers who get their horses at auction.
"The mating is a science within itself, but it's not an exact science," said Lukas, the sport's top winning trainer whose success has come primarily with expensive yearling purchases. "You're talking about an excellent horseman, you're not talking about somebody who wakes up and gets lucky."
Lukas said one of McGaughey's advantage is working for people with an understanding of the game.
"I'm sure there's a certain amount of expectations and pressure with the job, but at the same time he works for people that are knowledgeable," Lukas said. "Dinny Phipps is knowledgeable to know that [McGaughey] needs time here or can do this or he can't do that with a certain horse, and that's a big plus. But, I don't think the job is an easy job."
Phil Hauswald worked as an assistant to McGaughey in the late 70's and 80's before going out on his own. Hauswald said he believes McGaughey's "God-given talent" is what separates him from other trainers.
"I would say in this day and age there are very few people that have kept it at the level over a long period of time he has," Hauswald said. "I don't believe everyone could have accomplished what he has with the horses he's had."
A death and a scare
On April 22, less than two weeks before the Phipps family's return to the Kentucky Derby, Ogden Mills Phipps died at the age of 93.
"I probably think about him every day," McGaughey said. "People didn't really understand or know Mr. Phipps. He was kind of from the old-school wealth, a little bit shy in his daily activities, but he was a very, very kind person. He loved the horses and was very appreciative of anything you accomplished with them."
McGaughey said Ogden Phipps would really have enjoyed the success of Storm Flag Flying.
"This would have been a great big to-do because so much of it is his breeding," McGaughey said. "My Flag was his, and I'm sure he was the one who decided to breed her to Storm Cat."
In June, while undergoing a routine physical exam, McGaughey learned he had three major blockages in coronary arteries. Two days later, he underwent triple bypass surgery. McGaughey has been back to work full time since the middle of the Saratoga meeting, and he says he is in great health.
"I don't have a heart problem, I don't have coronary disease," McGaughey said. "I had a blockage of those arteries, and those are taken care of. It never came to mind that I don't want to do this anymore, or I want to restructure my life."
In fact, McGaughey is enjoying life. He recently celebrated his fifth wedding anniversary with Alison, 39, his second wife. His two sons, Chip, 16, and Reeve, 13, from his first marriage, have become increasingly more interested in racing.
Though he still trains primarily for the Phippses, McGaughey also has some horses for Claiborne Farm, Helen Alexander, and Stuart Janney. McGaughey doesn't have to attend horse sales and bid on expensive yearlings and says he doesn't regret it.
"I'm very satisfied with my situation," McGaughey said. "These are the most wonderful people a guy could ever hope to be around. The Phippses, the Hancocks, the Alexanders, they all understand the game. They don't bother you, and they encourage you to have some other interests, too.
"I think I would probably have a difficult time with some of the newer people that are getting into the game," McGaughey said. "I want everybody to be involved and be interested, but if you got somebody telling you what to do or questioning you, it makes your job a little more difficult."
|1995||Juvenile Fillies||My Flag|