08/09/2012 11:21AM

Saratoga: McGaughey winning big again, with turf horses

Barbara D. Livingston
Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey has won three Grade 1 races in 2012, matching his output from the previous three years combined.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Even at age 61, with a résumé that includes a Hall of Fame plaque, nine champions trained, and an Eclipse Award for himself, Shug McGaughey remains as competitive as ever.

So for the last few years, when he was not competing in as many of the sport’s high-profile events as he would have liked, it gnawed at him.

“I would have a lot of sad Saturday afternoons when I’d be sitting in front of the TV and not be participating,” McGaughey said during a recent interview in his Saratoga barn office. “They weren’t fun.”

There have been far fewer sad Saturdays for McGaughey in 2012. His three Grade 1 victories this year equal the number he won combined from 2009 to 2011. His eight graded stakes victories this year are the most he’s had since 2005.

Certainly, the next two Saturdays have great potential for McGaughey, who has been training horses for 36 years. This Saturday at Saratoga, McGaughey will participate in the Grade 2, $500,000 Fourstardave Handicap with Data Link.

On Aug. 18 at Saratoga, McGaughey will send out Point of Entry in the Grade 1, $600,000 Sword Dancer Invitational – a race McGaughey has never won – and Sea Island in the Grade 1, $600,000 Alabama, a race McGaughey has won three times. That day he also will be represented in the Grade 1 Arlington Million in Chicago with Boisterous. McGaughey is winless in one previous attempt at the Million.

With the exception of the Alabama, the other three races are on turf. In fact, seven of McGaughey’s eight graded wins this year – and all seven of his graded wins in 2011 – have come in turf stakes.

“It’s really kind of funny,” said McGaughey, who has been the private trainer for the Phipps family since 1985. “For a long time my friends used to kid me, ‘You can’t train a grass horse.’ Then I got Vanlandingham, and he won the [D.C.] International, and then I come up with Lure, and he’s probably as good a miler as there’s been.”

Vanlandingham also won the Suburban and Jockey Club Gold Cup on dirt in 1985, and Lure won back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Miles, in 1992 and 1993. It is those types of races in which McGaughey wants to compete. The Fourstardave could be a stepping-stone to the Breeders’ Cup Mile for Data Link, a son of War Front who already won the Grade 1 Maker’s Mark 46 Mile in April. McGaughey isn’t sure that Data Link might not be better with a little more distance, but with the right set-up he can be successful at a mile.

“I’ve always kept in my mind that I was going to keep him at the middle distances because I knew I had the others that wanted to run long,” said McGaughey, who trains Data Link for Stuart Janney III. “But he’s doing awfully well, and I think with that race, as good a race as it’s coming up, it’s going to be whoever gets the right kind of trip.”

Point of Entry, a Phipps family homebred son of Dynaformer, could be developing into one of the top turf marathoners in the country. Since last Dec. 11, Point of Entry has won his last four races at 1 3/8 miles or farther, including a dominant victory in the Grade 1 Man o’ War at Belmont Park on July 14. At this time last year, McGaughey ran Point of Entry in the Curlin Stakes on dirt, where he finished a well-beaten fourth.

“He’s not even close to the same horse now,” McGaughey said. “He’s grown up, he’s filled out. I still think he’ll strengthen up even more than he has.”

Boisterous, a son of Distorted Humor owned and bred by the Phipps family, is a three-time graded stakes winner who was beaten a neck by Rahystrada in the Grade 3 Arlington Handicap, the prep for the Arlington Million.

“I thought we got a little bit too far back on a slow pace when that horse Rahystrada broke on the lead,” McGaughey said. “I know that horse, and I know that son of a gun will keep going. We were getting to him, but we kind of did it too late.”

In Sea Island, McGaughey will be running a live longshot in the Alabama, a race McGaughey first won in 1986 with Classy Cathy and most recently in 2006 with Pine Island. Sea Island, a daughter of Pulpit, should handle the 1 1/4-mile distance and is coming off a solid allowance win against older fillies in a second-level allowance race at Saratoga on July 26. Before that, she finished fourth behind Emma’s Encore in the Grade 3 Victory Ride at six furlongs at Belmont.

“I thought she ran fine that day, she just didn’t know about sprinting,” McGaughey said. “I do think that race could have helped her get to the race she ran in the other day. It got a race into her for one, and it might have put enough speed into her where she lay up close enough. She put away a pretty good filly that day who came to her at the head of the lane.”

While his present stock is doing well, McGaughey has also liked what he’s seen so far from his budding 2-year-old crop. Subsonic, a Malibu Moon colt, and Overwhelming, a son of Hard Spun out of Oh What a Windfall, give McGaughey reason for optimism. He is also high on Beat the Drums, a filly who is by Smart Strike and the second foal out of Storm Flag Flying, McGaughey’s champion 2-year-old filly of 2002.

At a time when the use of race-day medication is being closely examined, McGaughey will not race his 2-year-olds on the anti-bleeding medication Lasix. Both Ogden Mills Phipps and Janney are members of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) who have pledged not to use Lasix on their 2-year-olds.

“I think what their stand is is that this is someplace where we can start, where we can cut down on the race-day medication issue, and I’m on board with that,” McGaughey said. “Even though I know I’m giving up somewhat of an advantage with not using Lasix, I’m on board with the perception that’s out there that something needs to change.”

Janney said he consulted with McGaughey before deciding to eliminate Lasix from his 2-year-old program.

“He said, ‘I always assumed that’s what we’d be doing this year at some point,’ ” Janney said of his conversation with McGaughey. “We both agreed that we are trying to get a 2-year-old to the Breeders’ Cup. Might not get there, but if that’s the objective and they’re going to race without Lasix when they get there, that’s reason enough to do it.”

Phipps admitted that his crop of 2-year-olds the last few years were bad. He said one change he has made in his program is that he has shipped his babies to Niall Brennan in Ocala to be broken.

“I don’t know if it’s the crops that he’s had or not, but we have seen a marked increase in the position they’re in when they come to Shug at the racetrack,” Phipps said.

McGaughey says he takes it hard when a horse he believes will run well doesn’t. A case in point was Hymn Book, who finished a disappointing fourth in the Grade 1 Whitney on Aug. 4. McGaughey said he spent a large part of that night and the next morning trying to figure out what went wrong. He ultimately deduced that Hymn Book may not like it at Saratoga as much as he does Belmont.

“It’s hard on me when I lose because I’m so competitive,” McGaughey said. “It takes me a while to get over it. I understand racing, and I understand what it takes to get from A to D, but when I’m there and I think I got the right horse and they get beat or they don’t run the way I expect to, it eats at me.”