Shug McGaughey and his former intern each seek Derby glory
LOUISVILLE -- Seventeen years ago Chad Brown was a high school senior in search of summer work. He lived in the upstate New York village of Mechanicville, a former Hudson River mill town 20 miles north of Albany and just a shade closer to New York City to the south than Montreal to the north, not far from the Vermont border. Like most nearby communities, Mechanicville was heavily influenced by its proximity to Saratoga Springs, the time machine thoroughbred racing capital that lay a few miles northwest. Brown spent dozens of summer afternoons at Saratoga with his family, sitting among the acres of sun- (and often rain-) splashed picnic tables behind the ancient wooden grandstand, eating submarine sandwiches and watching horses saddle underneath towering elms and maples.
He was bitten hard by the racing bug. Where most teenagers idolized NFL and NBA players, Brown's heroes were the horses and trainers who ran at Saratoga. During the year he turned 16, Brown watched as the great colt Holy Bull won the 1994 Travers Stakes, Saratoga's most prestigious race (the so-called "Midsummer Derby"). Holy Bull put away speed rabbit Comanche Trail leaving the backstretch, and held off future Breeders Cup Classic winner Concern at the wire. It was a timeless tour de force.
"The Holy Bull race," says Brown. "I remember that one." Yet his favorites were the horses trained by Shug McGaughey for the Phipps family -- regal homebred classic horses from the bygone days of racing: Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer, unbeaten filly Personal Ensign and Vanlandingham, all of whom raced into the late 1980s in black and red silks as Brown was growing up. Those and many others. "Shug and those Phipps horses," says Brown. "They were Saratoga."
During high school, Brown worked at Saratoga Harness, the standard-bred track across Nelson Avenue from the big track. "It was more accessible work," says Brown. "And they ran year-round." As graduation approached, Brown aimed higher. He sent a handwritten note to McGaughey -- the only trainer he queried -- looking for a summer internship at the bottom of the thoroughbred ladder. "He called me back," says Brown. "I don't remember the details of the call, but he definitely called. He said 'Yeah, we take interns.'" (McGaughey says, "He was a very persistent kid. He knew what he wanted to do."). Brown spent that summer working for McGaughey at Belmont Park and then Saratoga before enrolling in his freshman year at Cornell. He walked hots (horses who are still sweating after a hard workout) and mucked stalls. "Learned the ropes," he says. "Shug taught me a lot."
Brown, now 34 years old, spoke these words outside Barn No. 42 on the Churchill Downs backstretch. On Saturday afternoon, he will saddle his first Kentucky Derby horse, a live colt named Normandy Invasion who will likely be among the top five betting choices in what handicappers perceive as a wide-open Derby. Less than 100 feet away from Brown, meanwhile, McGaughey, 62, has taken up residence at the east end of barn No. 43, where he is preparing Florida Derby winner and possible Derby post-time favorite Orb. It is McGaughey's seventh Derby starter, but just his second since Easy Goer's dispiriting second-place finish behind Sunday Silence in 1989, a race that McGaughey says he has never watched in the 24 years since it took place.
Horse racing is a sprawling, global enterprise. (A struggling global enterprise, long fallen into the category of a U.S. niche sport, but a global enterprise just the same.) Yet it is also much like a small town, where the significant players are connected across racetracks and generations. In nearly every Derby, trainer D. Wayne Lukas, 77, races his horses against those trained by his former assistants. (On Saturday, Lukas's most successful assistant, Todd Pletcher, will send five Derby starters to the post for the second time in second years.) The Brown-McGaughey dynamic is a poignant example of this -- a rising young trainer chasing victory in his first Derby, possibly at the expense of the older man who provided him entry into the business ... And who feels an increasing urgency to the win the only race that really matters.
There is also a distinct similarity to their paths. Like Brown, except more than two decades earlier, McGaughey grew up in a place where the horse was revered. For Brown it was Saratoga, for McGaughey, Kentucky. He was raised on Lakewood Ave. in the Chevy Chase section of Lexington, and by the time he was in high school he was driving to Keeneland to bet horses in the afternoon. It was the gambling that drew him to the track. He attended his first Derby in 1967, when he saw Proud Clarion upset heavily favored Damascus. "I didn't bet the winner," says McGaughey.
He is a short, pear-shaped man who speaks in roughly the same cadence -- and with the same cool -- as uber-Dad Archie Manning. This seemingly relaxed detachment is well-known to racing media and has long served McGaughey (his given first name is "Claude") as a effective head-fake in the face of all manner of professional emotions. Win or lose, you pretty much get the same Shug. In the weeks -- and now, days -- leading to the Derby, McGaughey has steadily dropped that guard and given voice to the Derby Desperation that every trainer feels -- the good ones feel it deepest of all.
"I don't know that I need [the Derby] to punctuate my career," says McGaughey. "But I need it myself."
He started in the business much like Brown would start many years later, walking hots and cleaning stalls for a trainer who gave him a shot. In McGaughey's case, it was a Keeneland trainer named David Carr. He landed later as the top assistant to Frank Whiteley, who had once trainer the great filly Ruffian. And in 1985, at the age of 34 (Brown's age now) he was hired as the private trainer for the Phipps family, a latter-day dynasty of financiers reminiscent of early 20th-century racetrackers. The racing game is increasingly dominated by new money; the Phipps family is old money.
It's also old breeding rules, matching family broodmares with steady stallions in search of classic traits of stamina and durability. In a business that was dominated by speed and brilliance from the late 1980s into the 2000s, Phipps horses were often simply not good enough to reach the Triple Crown. Since Easy Goer in '89, McGaughey brought only Saarland in 2002 (he finished 10th). There were others who could have been rushed to Churchill, and failed; many other trainers (and owners) have come just for the party. "`I can't look back and think of any horse that I didn't bring here that I should have brought here." says McGaughey. "But, am I disappointed that I haven't been more competitive in the Triple Crown races? Yes. I hope to do better in the future."
McGaughey said that the Phipps family is exploring more aggressive breeding options, potentially producing more precocious three-year-olds with a chance to compete in the spring classics. It will be difficult to produce a better horse than Easy Goer, who after losing to the great Sunday Silence in the Derby and Preakness, trounced him in the Belmont by eight lengths. Easy Goer went on to win the Travers that year, but Sunday Silence won the Breeders Cup Classic and was named Horse of the Year. Orb, co-owned by Ogden Mills Phipps and his cousin, Stuart Janney, whose parents owned Ruffian and who has owned many horses in partnership with Phipps, is clearly McGaughey's best three-year-old since Easy Goer. He needed four starts to break his maiden, on Nov. 24 at Aqueduct, but hasn't lost since. His Florida Derby win is considered by insiders the second-best Derby prep performance, after Goldencents' win in the Santa Anita Derby.
"He developed quite a bit over the winter," says McGaughey, and then embellishes himself. "Not quite a bit, a lot. He's the kind of horse that I think is going to appreciate the distance and I think he's going to appreciate the long stretch here more than the short stretch at Gulfstream [Park, in Florida]." There are genuine questions about whether Orb possesses the pure speed to avoid trouble early in the Derby, a 20-horse rodeo.
But McGaughey is convinced that his horse is improving daily. And with that improvement, his trainer can sense the possibility of victory. "I'm as excited as I've been in a long time about a race," says McGaughey. "I have not been like this in a long time. Maybe ever."
Brown is the old Shug, minus the Archie voice. He is exceptionally cool and seemingly unmoved by the moment, all business. (This veneer cracks only when he is reminded by a Saratoga region writer that he once declared the Travers the one race he wanted to win. "The Derby is the race that everybody wants to win," says Brown. "The Derby is the Derby."
After working for McGaughey and after graduating from Cornell, Brown went to work for a veterinarian and then for Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel (who died of cancer in 2009 at age 68) before starting his own stable late in 2007. He lives in Saratoga Springs and commutes to Belmont Park for the spring and fall race meets that bookend Saratoga's six-week season. He's a fixture in his home town on racing days. "Everybody at Saratoga knows where to find me," he says. "I'm the guy at the picnic table in a suit, with my family, eating a sub."
He first saw Normandy Invasion last spring at Keeneland's annual two-year-old sale and asked owner Rick Porter (who campaigned the ill-fated Eight Belles, among other good horses) to consider buying the horse and letting Brown train him. Porter obliged, sending Normandy Invasion and five other two-year-olds to Brown last summer.
Like Orb, Normandy Invasion broke his maiden in November at Aqueduct. He became a Derby contender with a second-place finish in the Remsen at Aqueduct on Nov. 24, but nearly fell off the trail with a troubled fifth-place finish in the Risen Star Stakes in Louisiana on Feb. 23. Six weeks later, he chased unbeaten possible Derby favorite Verrazano to the wire while finishing second in the Wood Memorial. Notably, Normandy Invasion ran easily past Verrazano just after both horses passed the wire, which can be instructive of their ability to run longer.
"I think we're just starting to get the best out of him," says Brown. "He's ready for a breakthrough race." But if he doesn't get that race, Brown will have a deep rooting interest. "If I don't win," says Brown, "The guy I want to win is Shug. No question about who I'm rooting for if I can't win."