08/04/2004 12:00AM

Trip to the top started in the rain


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Claude R. "Shug" McGaughey III remembers the day his life changed.

"I got off on Exit 39 S off the L.I.E. [Long Island Expressway]. It's raining buckets on the morning of Oct. 5, 1985. I was going out to meet these guys that I had heard about my whole life, my whole racing life. We talked and they put me at ease pretty quick, but I wasn't but 37 years old or something."

That afternoon, McGaughey won the Jockey Club Gold Cup with Vanlandingham, from Loblolly Stable, on his way to champion older horse honors. Ogden "Dinny" Phipps presented the trophy.

On Nov. 11, McGaughey replaced Angel Penna Sr. as the Phipps family private trainer. Life changed.

McGaughey was 34, to be exact, and he wasn't doing too badly with his public stable. John Ed Anthony of Loblolly was racing good horses like Vanlandingham and Pine Circle but this was the Phipps job - the ultimate private training job in the sport, an opportunity to race generations and generations of the best-bred horses in the sport.

"I didn't know what to expect, but I did have some confidence going in. I felt like if it didn't work, I could always go back and rebuild because I hadn't burnt any bridges,' McGaughey said. "It was fun - they had a lot of horses, and we had to do a lot of rebuilding. I was a young man - I was up for it."

When McGaughey was thinking about the job he told a friend, "If I take this job, I might be able to win races like the Champagne and the Frizette."

Polish Navy won the Champagne and Personal Ensign won the Frizette in McGaughey's first year. Personal Ensign would retire with an unblemished 13-for-13 mark in 1988. Easy Goer would become the champion 2-year-old in 1988 and win the Gotham, Wood Memorial, Belmont, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup in 1989. In all, McGaughey trained six champions for the Phippses and returned their stable to prominence. Now he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer after only 25 years of training. He will be inducted on Monday, Aug. 9. The speech is written.

"I'm excited about it. Every day it gets closer, the more meaningful it gets," McGaughey said. "As I'm going to say in my speech, when I walked through that guy's barn for my first summer job, I had no idea it would lead me here."

"That guy" was David Carr, whose Keeneland barn McGaughey entered for his first hotwalking job. He never wanted to do anything else. Born in Lexington, Ky., McGaughey visited Keeneland with his parents and eventually learned he liked to bet and he loved the sport. When regulars tore out the Keeneland past performances and left the rest of the Form on the ground, McGaughey scooped them up and scoured the charts from other tracks. Carr served as the first window into the sport. Eventually McGaughey got a job with Hall of Famer Frank Whiteley in Camden, S.C.

It was there where he learned his greatest lesson.

"Mr. Whiteley asked me one day, 'You really like this, don't you?' I said, 'Yup.' He said, 'Let me tell you, for every good thing that happens, 20 bad things will happen.' I was just a kid sitting on a footbox then," McGaughey said. "He was right. He was exactly right. I'm always glad he told me that, because when something does disappoint me, I can relate to what he said."

McGaughey hasn't been disappointed often, at least compared with the successes that have come in waves. Personal Ensign's run in the Breeders' Cup Distaff could have gone either way. I'm possibly down with time running out, she got up in the final strides to remain undefeated.

"She was a career-maker. For her to win that race and the way she won it, that wasn't training, riding, or anything else. That was sheer determination," McGaughey said. "For her to win 12 in a row and get beat, it would have been anticlimactic. For her to win, it put the period at the end of the sentence. It made everything worthwhile."

It's hard to imagine McGaughey doing anything but training horses. He went out on his own in 1979 when Reynolds Bell helped him get a job training for Bacacita Farm, Pat and Ann Dunigan of West Texas. They gave him $1,500 a month plus commission, and paid all the bills. Bill Greely and Howard Battle of Keeneland did him a favor and gave him stalls for a dozen babies.

McGaughey was on his way. Until Pat Dunigan died of a heart attack. In a year or two, things had fizzled out, and McGaughey was back to two horses.

Friends like Tommy Roach, the Greathouse family, and Dr. Gary Lavin rallied to his cause and sent him horses. McGaughey started to win big races like the 1983 Spinster with Try Something New. Two decades later it has all come to a crescendo.

"It's hard for me to believe that in 25 years, all the things have happened. . . . That it would all culminate with this award," McGaughey said. "What means the most is to receive something that means that much for doing something that has been so gratifying."