Honoring Shug - By Evan Hammonds

Racing on both coasts Sept. 28 delivered memorable results with remarkable, heart-pounding finishes and jaw-dropping romps. Private Zone and Justin Phillip’s tight photo in the Vosburgh Invitational Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont along with Secret Compass’ edging She’s a Tiger in Santa Anita’s Chandelier Stakes (gr. I) brought us to the edge of our seats while Beholder’s runaway score in the Zenyatta Stakes (gr. I) in California and Ron the Greek’s 6 3/4-length win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational Stakes (gr. I) left us starstruck.

“Super Saturday,” with its 10 pre-Breeders’ Cup grade I races, has become a veritable holiday for handicappers, delivering more grade I races than on the Saturday of the Breeders’ Cup card itself.

It was fitting then that Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey was the Honored Guest at the Thoroughbred Club of America the evening of Sept. 29. October 16 will mark the 20th anniversary of McGaughey’s five-graded-stakes-win day at Belmont Park during its “Breeders’ Cup Preview Day.” On that magical afternoon the trainer won four races for the Phipps family, his main clients, and all five victors were by Claiborne Farm stallions. It was Claiborne’s Seth Hancock who suggested the Phippses hire the up-and-coming conditioner.

McGaughey, a Lexington native and Kentucky favorite since sending out his first grade I winner in 1983 when John A. Bell III’s Try Something New won Keeneland’s Spinster Stakes, has spent more than a quarter of a century manning the stable of the Phipps family. Owners and trainer reached the pinnacle of the sport earlier this year when the Phipps Stable and Stuart Janney III’s Orb won the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I).

After an introduction by Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, McGaughey was humble in his remarks to the packed house at the Keeneland Entertainment Center. There was no bravado or rehashing of his past accomplishments—and there have been many—at the TCA. He was quick to thank his family, stable help, and all those trainers who helped him get his start what seemed like not so long ago. He also thanked the many breeders and owners in Kentucky and New York who have provided him with the top-level bloodstock to mold and shape into champions.

He did, however, offer his opinion on how to move the sport forward. “Like many of you, I attended The Jockey Club’s Round Table Conference last month in Saratoga Springs,” he said. “I think several of the presentations on that agenda prove that this industry needs to follow the lead of other sports. We have made some progress, but we need to do a lot more.

“I am not a pharmacist or a vet, and I don’t want to get into the benefits and drawbacks of particular medications or drugs. But it sure seems clear to me that we need uniform medication policies; we need labs that all have the same drug testing capabilities; and we must have greater surveillance on big race days. We need to discipline those who do not abide by these rules.

“It’s a real disservice to owners, trainers, jockeys, and even more importantly, our fans, if we are not presenting fair competition. We need to find and eliminate illegal drugs. Penalties should be stiffer for chronic positives. Fans and prospective fans need to know that our horses are being treated properly. It seems like we’re making some progress, and I sincerely hope that it continues for the sake of all of us in this game.”

Before the evening was out, the 62-year-old trainer delivered a warning to the racing world.

“I have come full circle. Starting on these grounds back in the early ’70s, making $40 a week as a hotwalker, to standing here tonight. If I say so myself, it’s been quite a journey,” he began. “But one thing I want everyone to know—we’re not done yet. There’s going to be many more great Saturday afternoons, and, hopefully, we’ll get the opportunity to win the Kentucky Derby again so we can start that adventure once more.”

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