Along with the other Claiborne yearlings, Easy Goer was bitted and broken at the farm in August 1987, and then put into light training. In mid-November he was shipped to trainer Shug McGaughey at the Payson Park Training Center in Indiantown, Fla., where he would spend the winter getting acquainted with the starting gate and training under the warm southern sun.
Just after dawn had broken one morning in February 1988, Shug and his wife, Mary Jane, stood by the training track rail at Payson Park. They watched as Easy Goer was galloped in company with other 2-year-olds. If Lukas is hyperbole, McGaughey is restraint; but on this morning, even Shug was clearly impressed. "Look at the way he's going," he said as Easy Goer flew past. "He's galloping those other horses into the ground. He's probably going to be an awfully decent colt." For Shug, it was an emotional outburst. Mary Jane, who would be the colt's exercise rider, picked up on it. "Look at his stride!" she said. "He's got such a pretty way of going."
Still, McGaughey reserved judgment; he wasn't about to get all excited over an untried colt. One evening, with the day's work over, the McGaugheys sat at their kitchen table after supper, discussing their horses, as they often do. Mary Jane began to marvel over Easy Goer once again, but Shug shook his head. "Just don't go getting too attached to him," he warned. "'He's got that clubfoot you know, and he might not be around too long."
Few if any thoroughbreds have perfect conformation, which is why trainers who rate horses on a scale of one to 10 never score a horse higher than nine. Easy Goer was no exception. His left knee turned out, an injury waiting to happen, as it was pounded again and again in workouts. "Don't worry about it," Mary Jane said. "It only turns out a little bit. Besides, he compensates for the way he's made. He's an athlete, Shug."
McGaughey shipped his horses to New York's Belmont Park in April and one morning took Easy Goer over to the track to work him out of the starting gate, to see how the colt broke. Mary Jane kicked him out of the gate and galloped on up the track. A few minutes later, a friend of McGaughey's walked up. "I just clocked your colt, Shug. Got him in 23 and change from the five-eighths to the three-eighths pole." McGaughey looked at him and shook his head. "Can't be." he said. "You ought to take that watch of yours in for repairs."
On Aug. 1, McGaughey put Easy Goer into a maiden race at Belmont, though he worried that he might be rushing the colt a bit. Easy Goer got left at the gate but recovered quickly, coming from 3½ lengths off the pace and passing two horses to get beaten by only a nose. Not a bad race for a green 2-year-old, but hardly an earthshaking debut. Certainly nothing like the performance tracksiders at Belmont had witnessed just five days earlier by a colt named Houston.
In a six-furlong race over the same track, Lukas had sent off his shiny 2-year-old, and the horse blazed the distance in 1:10[4/5] to win by a whopping 12½ lengths. The press was instantly abuzz with talk about Houston. Maybe, the media said, the price Lukas had paid for the horse wasn't as insane as some had thought.
Lukas had bought 23 yearlings at that Keeneland summer sale, and they all were shipped to his farm in Oklahoma. He would call every day to check on their progress, and always the first question he would ask his farm manager was, "How's the big horse?" In November, Houston was shipped to Lukas's training center in Del Mar, Calif. There, he was broken and put into light training.
Unlike the other horses, who could be monitored by assistants, Houston was given star treatment. Lukas, who had so much of himself invested in this one, refused to let any assistant touch him. "This horse is perfect," Lukas would tell anyone who cared to listen. "He puts every foot right. He's so smart, and he has such a presence about him." Lukas decided early that his son, Jeff, was the only other person who would train and care for Houston.
At the beginning of January, when the colt turned two, Wayne sent him to Jeff at Hollywood Park. And every day thereafter the father would call the son and ask. "How's the big horse doing?" The big horse was doing well. In morning gallops, when he would spot another horse 50 yards up the track, Houston's ears would prick forward and he would go for him, wanting to get by, to be in front. And the horse was so smart, he mastered the gate in two trips. In the spring Wayne called Jeff and said, "Take him to New York. The tracks are more forgiving and there are more stakes opportunities. And if he's as good as I think he is, he'll need that Big Apple exposure. There'll be more people paying attention, more media coverage."