It was a couple of days before the running of the 2013 Kentucky Derby, and Shug McGaughey was trying to put into words what it would mean if he could finally capture the race that had eluded him for so long.
“This is for the Phippses and the Janneys and my people,” he said. “I come in third.”
Claude R. "Shug" McGaughey III
That expression of loyalty and selflessness summarized McGaughey in one sentence. And it explained why so many in the racing world wanted the native of Lexington, Ky., to win the race of his dreams. He did, of course, when Orb splashed home clear by 2 ½ lengths for first cousins Ogden Mills Phipps and Stuart Janney III, culminating that family’s pursuit of racing’s grandest prize through six generations.
Loyalty can be rare in any realm, where a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mentality tends to prevail. But McGaughey has worked tirelessly to justify the faith this preeminent racing family placed in him when he was hired to be their personal trainer in 1986. And they were unwavering in their belief in him.
Janney made sure to salute McGaughey after Orb finally proved to be the right horse. “This is a time to reflect on our terrific trainer,” he said. “I certainly hoped it would be his time, and it was.”
Trust is another quality that can be in short supply in any arena. Yet these parties never have a doubt.
“They don’t interfere,” McGaughey said of the unusually strong working relationship. “It’s our ballgame and we all know if we mess up, we’ll be looking for jobs. And we don’t want to be looking for jobs.”
Phipps made clear his high expectations the fortuitous day he hired McGaughey and added, “I know where to find you.”
The parties work together so seamlessly because they share yet another rare quality – patience. McGughey, 66, said of his approach: “We kind of bring our horses along a little bit slower. You know, a lot of guys, that’s their goal is to get to the Derby. We don’t really do it that way, even though we want to get there. But I want the horse to take me.”
He saddled only six previous starters in the Kentucky Derby before Orb, a colt who blossomed as a 3-year-old after gentle handling at 2. McGaughey’s willingness to take his time with horses, to have them tell him when they are ready for certain challenges rather than forcing the action, led to his induction into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2004 in his first year of eligibility.
McGaughey is tied with Todd Pletcher and Richard Mandella for fifth in Breeders’ Cup victories with nine. He ranks ninth in earnings with $10,495,560. Given the magnitude of the stage, it is rather remarkable that he has sent out 62 starters to finish first or second 19 times.
McGaughey’s horses have made a tremendous mark on the Breeders’ Cup. Personal Ensign’s breathtaking rally in the 1988 Distaff, which allowed her to overtake Derby winner Winning Colors by a scant nose, is surely one of the most dramatic finishes in the 30-year history of the event. It allowed Personal Ensign to close her career with a perfect record in 13 starts.
McGaughey would go on to train Personal Ensign’s daughter My Flag and her granddaughter Storm Flag Flying, both of whom won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.
No wonder he said during his Hall of Fame induction, “My deepest debt of gratitude has been, and always will be, to the Phipps family. My affiliation with the Phipps family is one of the great highlights of my life.”
- McGaughey became enamored with the sport after his parents took him to the races at Keeneland Race Course.
- He dropped out of the University of Mississippi as a junior to work as a groom.
- Buzz Tenney, his longtime assistant, was a childhood friend.
- He kept to a superstition by watching Orb win the Derby on small television in a Churchill Downs office.
- Won six races – five stakes – on Oct. 16, 1993, at Belmont Park.