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It was the early afternoon of Jan. 8, and for a moment the three of them stood there—the colt, the trainer and the owner-breeder—looking as if they might be posing together for one of those big, solemn oil paintings that would one day hang in the National Museum of Racing. They symbolized not only much that made 1988 such an extraordinary year in racing but also what 1989 might yet turn out to be—something even more exceptional. That is, a year in which this royally bred chestnut—with an owner possessed of a pedigree the equal of his and a trainer who knew nothing about horses just 20 years ago—could become America's 12th Triple Crown winner.
Easy Goer is the solid winter-book favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, which will be run on May 6. Phipps was voted two Eclipse awards, as both outstanding owner and breeder, and McGaughey (pronounced muh-GAY-hee) won the trophy as America's leading trainer. And the colt wasn't even the most distinguished horse in the stable. What really earned McGaughey his Eclipse was the job he did with Phipps's Personal Ensign, last year's champion older filly. When she nipped Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors at the wire in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last fall, at the end of the most heart-stopping stretch run of the year, she became the first major American racehorse to retire undefeated (13-0) since Colin left the racetrack 80 years before. McGaughey also campaigned Phipps's Seeking the Gold, making him one of the nation's leading 3-year-olds, as well as major-stakes winners Personal Flag, Mining, and Cadillacing, a full sister to Easy Goer.
What made the achievements of the two men so notable is that they represented a throwback in the sport, a way of racing that had appeared to be endangered. Phipps breeds, raises and races all his own horses, buying none of them at the sales, and last year those horses were all out of mares he had bred and raced himself.
Although McGaughey never had more than 30 horses in training in 1988, they ended up winning nearly $7.2 million in purses, a staggering amount considering that his horses started in only 215 races.
Because of his work last year, particularly with Personal Ensign and Seeking the Gold, the 38-year-old McGaughey has come to be viewed as perhaps the brightest young trainer in America. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself and ask, 'How could this happen to me?' " he says. He not only has his first Eclipse, but better yet, the Kentucky boy has turned the corner into the new year with the winds toward Louisville blowing at his back. "To have the champion 2-year-old colt, and going to the Kentucky Derby!" he says. "I've dreamed about it so long—I've had it in me so long."
And to be having his success with the Phipps stable makes it all the more special. Way back in the mid-1970s, when he was working as an unknown assistant to trainer David Whiteley, McGaughey remembers walking to the deli near the main gate at Belmont Park, stopping at the end of the Phipps barn, looking down the long shedrow and gazing at the stalls decorated in emblems of cherry red and black, the famous Phipps colors. "The wooden wall boxes, the stalls with horses, the men playing checkers," he says. "I'd stand at the end of that shed and say to myself, 'If one day I could train those horses, that would be the ultimate dream.' "
As unlikely as that might have seemed at the time, it was no more so than McGaughey working on the race-track in the first place. Though born in Lexington, Ky., right in the hub of the Bluegrass, he grew up knowing far more about a five-iron than a stirrup iron. In his youth, except for an occasional visit to Keeneland racecourse with his father, who helped run the family's prosperous laundry and dry cleaning business, McGaughey knew nothing about horses. At 5'5", he was too small for high school team sports, so he took up golf, and he attacked the game with the same zeal he later brought to training horses.
By the time he was 17 he was down to a three handicap. His mother, Mildred, had once tried to coax him into horseback riding, but that adventure lasted only a day. "He came home and said, 'I really don't like cleaning the feet of those horses,' " she recalls. So it was something of a wonder to his family that when he dropped out of Ole Miss after his sophomore year, he got a job walking hots at Keeneland for $40 a week. He knew by then that golf was not for him, at least as a way to earn a living. He simply wasn't good enough.
McGaughey had begun attending the races regularly, and suddenly found himself caught up in the seductive rhythms of the racetrack, a world as insular as a traveling circus. "I liked sports, and it gave me a chance to play a competitive game, to compete," he says. "I liked the atmosphere of the racetrack as a bettor. I liked the action. I liked reading the Daily Racing Form. I liked being around the barn. I liked the idea that you could make your own destiny."
It was a filly, Sweet Lover, who really sank the racing hook into him. He was a groom at Latonia racetrack in Kentucky in the fall of 1971, and Sweet Lover was the first horse he ever took to the post. He was making $60 a week at the time, and he bet $4 to win on her. She did just that and paid $165 for a $2 bet, giving McGaughey a profit for the day, he remembers, of precisely $326. "I was rich for two weeks," he says.