If the racetrack ended his days as a serious golfer—he still gets around today in the low 80's—that was just as well. When he went to work in New York for veteran trainer Frank Whiteley and his son David, there was no time for anything, day or night, but the horses. The Whiteleys are notoriously obsessive workers. "Every 12 hours working for them is like 48 hours with anyone else," says trainer LeRoy Jolley. Looking back on it, says McGaughey, hiring on with the Whiteleys was the pivotal decision in his life.
He worked as David Whiteley's assistant for five years, until 1979, and emerged from the experience a horseman in his own right. Even measured against the rigorous Whiteley standard, McGaughey excelled.
For most of the next six years McGaughey trained for a variety of owners, at one point handling a large public stable with as many as 80 head running at four different tracks. "It about wore me out," he says. But it was there, in that frantic world of the public stable, that he first drew attention to himself, most notably when, in 1983, he took over a division of second-string 2-year-olds for John Ed Anthony's Loblolly Stable. Of the six youngsters who came under his care, one of them, Pine Circle, went on to finish second to Swale in the 1984 Belmont Stakes. But it was another colt, Vanlandingham, who took the trainer on a fast gallop to the top. Vanlandingham won three Grade I stakes in 1985 and was acclaimed the U.S.'s champion older horse.
"Shug is knowledgeable about horses in a way that's kind of magic," says Anthony. "He leans on his tack room door and watches the horses walk past him in sets to the racetrack. They may make a couple of turns, and he'll say, 'Put that one back in his stall; he's not happy.' Or, 'He's not moving the way I want.' Shug is also probably one of the most intense competitors I've met."
In the beginning, McGaughey's tantrums in the barn were almost legendary. McGaughey winces at the memory. "That sort of thing embarrasses me," he says. "I've calmed down a lot." Even today, though, he comes close to losing it when something goes wrong, at times to the point of tears: "Some days I get so mad that I feel like eating the windshield off of my car."
It is precisely that level of passion, of course, that has made him the horseman he is today. Owners and breeders had been watching his climb for years, and among them was the president of Claiborne Farm, Seth Hancock, an adviser to Phipps and his son, Ogden Mills (Dinny) Phipps, who also breeds and races his own horses.
In late 1985, when the Phipps family and its trainer, Angel Penna, came to a parting of the ways, Hancock suggested to Dinny Phipps that the family consider hiring McGaughey. When Phipps made the offer, McGaughey recalled the mornings he used to stop at the end of that shed and hope for the day. There were all those blue-blooded mares on the farm, and the elder Phipps had been pursuing a program to breed his mares to the nation's leading stallions: to Mr. Prospector, Alydar and Seattle Slew, as well as to their own successful family stallion, Private Account, the sire of Personal Ensign.
"There's a chance to get a horse of a lifetime there," McGaughey told his wife, Mary Jane, an exercise rider, who was carrying their first child, Claude IV, at the time. They were on their way.
The Phipps family is one of the oldest and most formidable powers in the sport. It was Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps, Ogden's mother, who bred and raced the phenomenally fast Bold Ruler. America's 1957 Horse of the Year, and put him to stud at Claiborne. Bold Ruler was even more brilliant as a sire than he had been as a racehorse, and through the 1960s he packed the Phipps stable with some of the swiftest horses in the land. Ogden himself bred and raced Buckpasser, a fine one back in the family's glory days in the '60s. The family's racing fortunes had waned since then, particularly in the past few years, but they were on the eve of a resurgence in 1985. In fact, McGaughey could not have arrived at a more propitious time. Relaxing was pregnant with Easy Goer. Seeking the Gold was a weanling. And Personal Ensign, Polish Navy, Mining and Cadillacing were all yearlings. The stable would soon be deep and talented, and the Phippses had a trainer who knew what to do with it.
McGaughey's training regimen does not begin and end in the early morning hours, when horses gallop or work out on the racetrack, but extends to assorted late-morning activities—from the grazing of the horses to the hosing of their legs. And after lunch, when most stables are idle, the work resumes with stable workers leading the horses from the barn to let them bathe in the sun. The point is to break the routine of a day and keep a horse active doing something, even if it's really nothing at all. Such work is what McGaughey means by mental preparation.