HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 23, 2014—Conjure up the image of walking a furlong or two in this man’s shoes:

You’re a Louisville native, not interested in becoming a basketball star, so you become a horse trainer and a damn good one, too.

Shug McGaughey plotting a course toward 2014 Classics
Photo by Toni Pricci
Shug McGaughey plotting a course toward 2014 Classics
So good, in fact, that the horses you train win often enough to earn you a place in horse racing’s pantheon, a.k.a. the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

No one ever held it against you, but there was a hole in your resume that needed filling, a lofty goal that many of the best practitioners in your business never have attained; training the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

But it was on the first Saturday in May, 2013, that you could finally cross this goal off your professional bucket list.

Now, picture yourself as Claude R. (Shug) McGaughey and what would you be feeling as you watched Orb cross the finish line first?


If that’s too low key, not living enough in that moment, then your emotional compass is probably about the same as the developer of the great Personal Ensign, Easy Goer, and all the rest.

“I’m not the type that shows a lot of emotion,” McGaughey said inside Barn 11 on the Gulfstream Park backstretch on a brisk, high-sky sunny morning. “Someone once told me for every good thing that happens to you in this game there are twenty that can go wrong. That’s probably about right.”

When it came to that first Derby win, however, it was more like 20 things had gone right. “Every time I needed it to not rain so that he could train, it didn’t rain. Every time I needed him to work, he worked, and he worked good,” said McGaughey, recalling his good fortune.

The Hall of Famer won’t have to wait much longer to see how things are going this year. Mr. Speaker, one of three 2014 Derby hopefuls, will have to show that he has classics potential in Saturday’s mile and a sixteenth Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes.

A second hopeful, Top Billing, will test his Derby worthiness in an allowance race earlier on the card.

The first thing McGaughey will look for before the Holy Bull field even travels a half-mile is whether or not Mr. Speaker can handle the Gulfstream surface. The good news is that only three of his 10 rivals have more racing experience; the bad is that every one of them have experience on dirt, something he lacks.

Guard the Lines, Data Link's full sister, owned and bred by Stuart Janney  III of Orb fame, will attempt maiden victory in Saturday's ninth race.
Photo by: Toni Pricci
Guard the Lines, Data Link's full sister, owned and bred by Stuart Janney III of Orb fame, will attempt maiden victory in Saturday's ninth race.
“His father never ran on the turf and neither did his mother,” McGaughey has repeated all week, “but [Mr. Speaker] won twice on it [including a graded stakes]. “And Orb didn’t run his first race [last year] until January 28.”

As if the dirt question weren’t enough, there’s the matter of handling the undefeated Coup de Grace; the very talented Cairo Prince; Wicked Strong, and Intense Holiday, the last three finishing 2-3-4 behind McGaughey’s third prospect, well regarded Honor Code, in last year’s Remsen.

“It's a very tough race,” he admitted.

Ridgling Honor Code, meanwhile, is just getting started after having surgery to remove an undescended testicle. “He sometimes got off his back legs in the stall but he never showed any pain from it,” McGaughey explained. “A.P. Indy was that way, a lot of the Pulpits, too. We just thought we should take care of it so we did.”

Honor Code has started breezing again. “He’s only had three races but he's won around two turns, so that gives him a leg up.”

As for Mr. Speaker, racing on turf evolved naturally. He had been training on dirt but when Shug's outfit was stabled at Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track, McGaughey started working him on grass and just decided to run him on it.

“We’ve been working him behind horses [at Payson Park training center] and he ran into the kickback, so he should handle dirt.”

McGaughey believes that Top Billing, entered in Saturday’s fourth race—a salty allowance test--is “a top prospect. He’s very athletic and that gives you a lot of confidence.”

Top Billing has run twice. Stabled at Fair Hill training center last year, McGaughey ran him at Laurel. After racing seventh much of the way in the slop, he finished like a rocket to win the six furlong dash by 5-1/4 lengths.

The Curlin colt, from A. P. Indy’s daughter Parade Queen, made his second start at Gulfstream in an ‘a-other-than’ allowances. “We weren’t at all comfortable running him at a mile and an eighth but he was ready to run.”

Top Billing didn’t get any the best of it, either. Dawdling in seventh behind a pokey 49.03 half-mile, he rallied inside, came out for room entering the stretch, was made a sandwich between two rivals, and sprinted with eventual winner Commissioner, a highly regarded Todd Pletcher runner who edged clear late.

“He was a little hesitant to run into [the kickback] but he’ll be more tactical as he learns,” McGaughey said, before sharing “after the race some guy in Vegas called me. I didn’t know who he was. He started yelling ‘why didn’t you claim foul’?!”

“[The trouble] might have been a blessing because I would have had to run him back in a stakes; I waited all last year for a ‘non-winners of two’ but it never filled. So now I can run him back in an allowance race.”

That seven-horse allowances, going as the fourth race, features two recent Pletcher graduates, including an impressive Surfing USA, and Rockford, third to Exit Stage Left in the Gold Rush at Golden Gate last time out and now makes his Eastern debut going first time for Bill Mott.

Exit Stage Left came out of that race to win the California Derby, remaining undefeated in three starts for Jerry Hollendorfer.

On Saturday, two of three McGaughey Derby hopefuls will be ready to go. Will there be any added pressure now that he’s a Derby-winning trainer?

“There’s no pressure,” he said as a matter of fact. “Last winter went perfect, this winter we’ll wait and see.”