Shug McGaughey has done it all. Choreographed the career of undefeated Personal Ensign. Won the Travers and Belmont with Easy Goer. Captured nine Breeders’ Cup races. Campaigned nine champions. Won more than 1,600 races for more than $100 million in purses.
The Hall of Famer trained a son of Dynaformer and grade I stakes winner Fantastic Find at Gulfstream Park in the spring of 2006. Yes, Tax Ruling.
McGaughey saw nothing and sold the raw, unraced Phipps homebred to Irv Naylor. Five years – and four trainers – later he’s the only horse to win two Grade I steeplechase stakes in 2011, capturing the Iroquois in the spring and Colonial Cup in the fall.
Now Shug, humor us for a moment. Just speculate. If you had all the time in the world to let him develop, how would Tax Ruling have been on the flat, let’s say as a 4- or 5-year-old, long on the grass?
“You never know, but he didn’t show us anything on the flat, on the dirt,” McGaughey said. “Somebody was telling me, that race at Nashville fits him perfectly. He’s not any good unless he runs 3 miles, right?”
The Colonial Cup is 2 3/4 miles, but there is no doubt, Tax Ruling is doing the one job he’s meant to be doing.
With a pace-pushing, stamina-zapping triumph in the $100,000 Colonial Cup to cap the season, the 8-year-old gelding improved his career record to six wins from 23 starts for just shy of $400,000.
A half-brother to stakes winner Treasure Island, five-time stakes winner Finder’s Fee and impressive Saratoga maiden winner Spare Change, Tax Ruling is cut from expensive cloth. Cloth that usually doesn’t drape steeplechase horses.
Tax Ruling made his career debut at Virginia Fall in 2006, finishing 10th and last for jockey Paddy Young and trainer Bruce Miller. That race included 2011 Colonial Cup starters Divine Fortune and Sermon Of Love and Nashville timber stakes winner Triple Dip. The chart put it succinctly: Tax Ruling was outrun. Miller and Young tried again, Tax Ruling beat one in the Woolfe at Camden, 11 lengths behind Sermon Of Love and 10 behind Slip Away. Funny enough, the chart read: Tax Ruling was outrun.
Naylor changed course and sent Tax Ruling to Jonathan Sheppard. A year after being with McGaughey, Tax Ruling tried the flat for the first time, finishing fourth in an off-the-turf maiden at Gulfstream Park. Sheppard regrouped and tried the turf at Colonial Downs that summer. Triple Dip won, Tax Ruling finished second, Mark The Shark finished third, Red Letter Day finished fourth, Zozimus finished sixth and G’day G’day finished ninth. Yes, it was a flat race.
By fall, Tax Ruling transferred to his third trainer (fourth, if you count McGaughey), finishing fifth in his jump debut at Montpelier for Desmond Fogarty. Tax Ruling broke his maiden at Strawberry Hill the next spring, his only win of the year. In 2009, he won again at Strawberry Hill, followed it with a novice stakes win at Radnor. He wound up third in the Colonial Cup to finish the season. Just 6 and maturing, he looked poised to be a factor in the open stakes division.
In 2010, Tax Ruling ran poorly in the Carolina Cup before winning the Iroquois in May. In his first open stakes triumph, Tax Ruling reeled in Slip Away, powering to a 4 3/4-length win. He had arrived. Then he retreated, losing three in the fall, including a 26-length drubbing to Slip Away in the Colonial Cup.
Wintered in Camden with Fogarty, Tax Ruling opened 2011 with a dull fourth to Sunshine Numbers in the Carolina Cup. A few weeks later, he was in Brianne Slater’s barn, preparing for an Iroquois defense.
“Tom Foley called me up and said ‘You’re going to get Tax Ruling.’ I was like, ‘Great.’ Then you’re like, ‘Oh —-, pressure,’ ” Slater said. “I train him the same as I train every other horse, not like he’s a grade one horse. To me, he’s a horse, I treat them all the same.”
Just that he’s not.
He did it again, out-staying Slip Away in the Iroquois and putting himself at the top of the open stakes division. Slater wisely put him away for the summer (even McGaughey knows there are no 3-mile races at Saratoga) and aimed for a fall campaign of two races. The Grand National at Far Hills and the Colonial Cup.
Under Xavier Aizpuru for the first time, Tax Ruling won a training flat at Shawan Downs and arrived at Far Hills with a score to settle. He retreated early in the soft ground of the Grand National, pulling up. Slater scoped him and found his lungs were full of mucous. Cleaned up, he returned for one final make-or-break shot at the Colonial Cup.
It was a different Tax Ruling.
“It didn’t look like they were going that fast but that’s one thing about Tax Ruling, he stays and he covers the ground,” Slater said. “I thought Far Hills was a little out of his comfort zone. He likes to have it his way, in his comfort zone, bowling along, in control, he doesn’t have a turn of foot. I don’t think he necessarily has to be in front but, like McDynamo, if he’s not in front or right there with a half-mile to go, he’s not going to win.”
Aizpuru made sure of that, riding Tax Ruling aggressively, putting his stamina to use. He dourly stayed up the rise to win the final Grade I stakes of the year. At the end of a long day, a long season, Aizpuru summed up Tax Ruling’s golden bullet.
“Sometimes he lacks that bit of speed, that natural speed,” Aizpuru said. “Today we went a good gallop where speed at the end wasn’t going to come into it as much as stamina. And we know he’s got that.”
McGaughey knew that all along.
“I’m glad to see him doing good. All I remember is he was a great big, awkward, dark bay horse,” McGaughey said. “He was fine around here but he wasn’t going to suit on the flat. There just weren’t any 3-mile races for him.”
Editor’s Note: The official steeplechase champion is selected by the Eclipse Award voters. ST chose Tax Ruling based on his two Grade I wins in 2011.
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Dk. B./Br. g. 8, Dynaformer-Fantastic Find, Mr. Prospector.
Bred by Phipps Stable in Kentucky. Owner: Irv Naylor. Trainers: Brianne Slater, Desmond Fogarty. Jockeys: Xavier Aizpuru, Darren Nagle.
Only horse to win two Grade I stakes in 2011. Second to Naylor-owned Black Jack Blues ($171,000) in seasonal earnings. Alternated lopsided defeats with Grade I victories in four-start campaign that included Iroquois and Colonial Cup victories.