11/02/2012 4:26PM

Hovdey: Can Point of Entry bring elusive Horse of the Year title to McGaughey?

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Shug McGaughey saddles Point of Entry before his victory in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.

The Breeders’ Cup should decide which horse is Horse of the Year, otherwise what’s it good for?

Oh sure, there’s the $25 million spread around 15 different races over two delirious days and 9 1/2 hours of television programming, this year primarily on the NBC Sports cable channel. That’s way too much to consume and digest in a rational manner, and anyway it would be dangerous to try. Horseplayers, feeling obliged to play hard in all directions, deserve high praise for bravery under heavy fire. Historians, on the other hand, get to leave the room for races like the Juvenile Fillies Turf, the Marathon, and the Turf Sprint, confident that they will not have missed anything of lasting consequence.

 They had better be paying close attention, though, when the $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf is run at about a quarter past three, Pacific, on Saturday afternoon. For all the talk about Game on Dude in the Classic, Wise Dan in the Mile, and Royal Delta in the Ladies’ Classic the day before, it could be the Turf that reveals the identity of the 2012 North American Horse of the Year

There is no known roster of “best trainers without a Horse of the Year,” but there’s little doubt Claude R McGaughey III, the man they call Shug, would be high on anyone’s list.

It’s not like he hasn’t tried. In 1988 he sent forth Personal Ensign to complete a 13-for-13 career by taking the Distaff in a thriller over Winning Colors. For about two hours Personal Ensign was the toast of the racing world, then Alysheba won the Classic and with it Horse of the Year.

[BREEDERS' CUP PPs: Visit DRF's official BC Handicapping Center]

In 1989, McGaughey’s fate was in his own hands – or, more accurately, in the hands of Pat Day, aboard Easy Goer. All they had to do was beat Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park, just as they had done so conclusively in the Belmont Stakes five months earlier. Sunday Silence won by a neck, but as far as Horse of the Year was concerned, it might as well have been a mile.

In 1993,  McGaughey brought the flamboyant Lure to Santa Anita in the full bloom of stardom, having won five of seven starts since ending his previous season with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Gulfstream Park. He drew the impossible post 12 for his title defense and won in a defiant waltz, but at the end of the day he wasn’t even considered the best grass horse on the grounds. That title, along with Horse of the Year, went to Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Kotashaan.

After thinking about it for a couple decades, McGaughey is positioned once again to be training the Horse of the Year at the end of business on Saturday. His name is Point of Entry, a son of Dynaformer out of a Seeking the Gold mare who finds himself up against Japan’s Trailblazer, the French filly Shareta,  and defending champ St. Nicholas Abbbey in a compelling 1 ½ miles.

Point of Entry is an old school, hard-bodied bay with depth and breadth, apparently built by the same firm that did Stonehenge. But if you hadn’t heard the name before this summer, when Point of Entry made light of the 11-furlong Man o’ War at Belmont Park, that’s okay. He was still an emerging talent, having pretty much frittered away his 3-year-old season like some wide-eyed college freshman.

“It wasn’t until he turned four that he grew up and figured out what he was here for,” said Jen Patterson, Point of Entry’s morning rider. “He’d go along and breeze okay, but you could tell by his ears he really wasn’t giving it his full concentration.”

McGaughey, a Hall of Famer since 2004, has enjoyed the benefits of training privately for the extended Phipps family and their homebreds since 1986. As such he is afforded the luxury of time, which in the case of Point of Entry has now paid off with five straight victories, including the Sword Dancer at Saratoga and the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park.

“I can’t say I thought we’d be in this position, but I always thought he’d be a nice horse,” McGaughey said Wednesday afternoon, shortly after arriving at Santa Anita from his home on storm ravaged Long Island. Though the McGaugheys were spared impact beyond the widespread power outages, they were shaken by the devastation and came bearing New York newspapers replete with heartbreaking photographs.

“Sixty-one trees were down at the Phipps property,” said Alison McGaughey, referring to the Long Island estate where so much racing history has been made. “It’s like that almost everywhere.”

Her husband was visibly relieved to finally be on the ground with his horse, who was now deep into his feed tub behind a screen and the black and red Phipps stable webbing. McGaughey pulled everyone back to “let him eat.”

“I started him out early in his 3-year-old year at Gulfstream,” McGaughey said, “just to see in case he was a good dirt horse I didn’t want to get left behind.”

He wasn’t. Even though Point of Entry won a maiden race in the slop, the Triple Crown class of 2011 went on without him. It turned out to be a second in an early 1 ¼-mile grass race that revealed his destiny. When Point of Entry turned 4, McGaughey never wavered from the surface, despite the fact that nothing in his immediate female family tipped toward turf.

“I’m sure if you go back far enough you’d find something,” McGaughey said. “But the part of the family I know got nothing. His mother was never on it. Seeking the Gold was never on it.”

But his sister was. Pine Island, by Arch, won a maiden turf race in early 2006. McGaughey was asked if Point of Entry reminds him of her.

“A little bit – his looks, the way he moves,” McGaughey said. “She kind of put her head down when she ran, like he does. He’s probably got a little more gas than she did. She was more of a grinder.”

Pine Island won the Alabama at Saratoga and the Gazelle at Belmont before going postward the second choice in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs. She made it as far as the backstretch before fracturing an ankle so severely she had to be euthanized.  

The day Pine Island died hit the McGaughey and the Phipps family in deep and fundamental way. He will let you know if he ever gets over it, but don’t hold your breath.

“When you do what we do, you kind of got to build a little shield around you,” McGaughey said. “You know something’s got to happen sometime.”

Pine Island would have been champion 3-year-old filly had she won that 2006 Distaff. Point of Entry could win the Turf and still be shut out for a championship, if fellow American Wise Dan takes the Mile. And if Game On Dude takes the Classic, they both can forget about Horse of the Year.

“It depends on what happens, but you’d have to consider him, sure,” McGaughey said. “I just hate to sit here and say anything like that before he’s run.”

The Breeders’ Cup should decide who Horse of the Year is, and this year it will. For McGaughey’s colt, though, maybe it will be victory enough just to finish the job his sister started.