At Belmont Park, the horse got ready quickly, and after Jeff worked him a few times, he was on the phone to Wayne. "Dad, this horse completely fools these exercise riders that get on him," he said. "He'll hang up a :47 half mile so easy, they'll think he went in :49." On July 27, after Houston had left the fans goggle-eyed with his 12½-length maiden win, Jeff was on the phone again. "Dad," he said, "this is a really good horse." Wayne Lukas was in horse heaven, but not for long. The next day, when Jeff made his rounds of the 40 horses in his care, running his hand over their knees and legs and ankles, he felt heat in Houston's right fore. It would be a long time before anyone would see this colt on a racetrack again.
In August the New York racing community packs up for the month and moves upstate to Saratoga. On a morning early in the meet, with the ancient elm trees along the Saratoga backstretch still swathed in veils of fog. Mary Jane strapped on her helmet and hoisted herself onto Easy Goer's back. "Let's breeze him," said Shug. "Take him a half mile in :50 or :51." When Mary Jane brought the colt back from the run, Shug was steamed. "I told you to take him in :51," he said. ''I got him in :48" Mary Jane was astonished. "I can't believe he went that fast," she said. "Well," said Shug, "everybody messes up once in a while. Next time, do what I tell you."
McGaughey picked out a seven-furlong race for the colt, and Easy Goer won in a blistering 1:22[3/5]. But McGaughey, still the skeptic, was certain that the tote machine timer had malfunctioned. As he led Easy Goer out of the winner's circle and past the saddling paddock, friends shouted out to him, "Hey, Shug, what kind of a horse is that?" McGaughey smiled at the well-wishers and kept his own counsel. "The horse just couldn't run that fast this early in the year," he thought. "There's got to be some mistake." But another voice inside him was saying, "Good God almighty, what have I got here?"
Easy Goer came out of that race with a sore left shin. McGaughey was bitterly disappointed because he thought he might have to stop his training. But he worked on the colt, hosing and poulticing the leg to draw out the heat, and it got better in a fairly short time. He decided to wait and have Easy Goer's legs further tended to in November, after the Breeders' Cup.
Two-year-olds, with bones that are still soft and growing, often get sore shins, either because of the crooked conformation of their legs or because of the heavy workouts they perform over the unforgiving surfaces of racetracks. At some time in their young lives, most thoroughbreds are blistered or pinfired, two similar processes that serve to strengthen the shinbones. Veterinarian Jim Hunt, who has treated both Easy Goer and Houston, says, "A lot of horses are out there running with sore shins, but they're not lame. It's just a minor problem. It didn't bother Easy Goer. He's so competitive, he'd run through brick walls. But some 2-year-olds are fainthearted. Sore shins might make them try not as hard."
Whether a trainer chooses pinfiring over blistering is a matter of personal philosophy. In blistering, the vet coats the horse's front legs (it is traditional to treat both legs, even if only one is sore) with a strong iodine paint once a day for 10 to 12 days. This is known as "barking," because the paint builds up like the layers of bark on a tree. The idea is to increase circulation in the legs by deliberately inflaming an already inflamed area and thereby speed the healing process. After the painting is completed, the legs are bandaged for 10 days. Then an ointment is applied and the "bark" eventually peels away.
Pinfiring is a more aggressive treatment. A firing iron, similar to one used in woodworking, is heated red-hot and the vet pierces the skin almost to the bone in a series of points, working down the leg in a horizontal pattern. Like blistering, the idea is to create swelling and inflammation that will increase blood circulation and help to strengthen the bone. After pinfiring, the horse is blistered. He's then hand-walked for about a month while the legs heal, and then, gradually, jogged and galloped until he's ready to go back into training.
Easy Goer continued to train at Saratoga with sore shins, but over at Lukas's barn, just a few yards away from McGaughey's, Houston hadn't left his stall. Speculation regarding the colt's health was rife. A reporter approached Jeff Lukas one morning in late August and asked about the big star. "We blistered him," said Jeff. "We're looking to run sometime in November. We can still have a three-or four-race campaign. That's all we want anyway."
At the end of August, the racing crowd packed up and moved back to Belmont Park. Still there was no sign of Houston on the racetrack. Finally, on Sept. 25, Jeff Lukas began sending the colt out to jog in the mornings. The horse, he insisted, was doing "just great." By mid-October, Easy Goer had won four of five races, two of them stakes; more than that, his form had so impressed people they were beginning to compare him with the great Secretariat. As for Houston, horsemen started to wonder if they would ever again see the horse break from a starting gate.
Last November the best thoroughbreds in the world stopped off at Churchill Downs for the Breeders' Cup series. Lukas decided to take Houston to Louisville, even though the colt wasn't going to race. "I want to give him a couple of works over the track; see how he handles it," said Lukas. "Where else can I duplicate the Kentucky Derby situation? The same paddock, the same track, the same hysteria."