Shug McGaughey watched his first Travers, or at least the first one he recalls, from a tack room at Belmont Park.
It was 1978. Laz Barrera had Affirmed. John Veitch had Alydar. McGaughey had nothing but a TV. Affirmed bumped Alydar, got disqualified and everybody left empty.
“The Whiteleys only brought a small string up here and I stayed down below,” McGaughey said. “I was friends with Veitch and pulling for Alydar. I didn’t see all that mess. Thinking back on it, that’s probably the first.”
There have been 35 renewals of the Travers since. McGaughey walked over with a runner for some. Others, he watched, grudgingly. Three he won.
You never forget your first. It was 1984, McGaughey sent out Pine Circle for Loblolly Stable. A son of Cox’s Ridge, he had tried all three legs of the Triple Crown, finishing sixth in the Derby, fifth in the Preakness and second in the Belmont. McGaughey prepped him for the Travers in an allowance race two weeks before the big one.
“In the Travers, he was making a move behind Track Barron and he stopped. We got stopped about the eighth pole,” McGaughey said. “Not a throw-your-head-up but he got stopped.”
Thirty years later, it’s still unsettled.
McGaughey tried again in 1986, 1987 and 1988.
“I ran Personal Flag in it, finished third, beaten a length and a half. He got a bad trip, even Mr. Phipps said later, ‘You should have won the Travers,’ ” McGaughey said. “Then I ran Polish Navy in it in the mud, he finished third to Java Gold, who was a really nice horse and loved the mud.”
Seeking the Gold made it three straight defeats, losing by a desperate nose to Forty Niner in 1988.
Loss fuels desire.
In 1989, McGaughey unleashed Easy Goer at the Travers.
“I was sitting on ready. I remember telling Pete Axthelm standing right out there,” said McGaughey, pointing to the courtyard between his barn and the Oklahoma track. “He said something about the purse, I said, ‘I ain’t worried about the purse, I just want to win the race.’
The 1989 Travers was worth $1,088,500. It hasn’t changed much, worth $1,250,000 today.
Fresh off of winning the Whitney against older horses two weeks earlier, Easy Goer toyed with Clever Trevor, Shy Tom, Doc’s Leader, La Voyageur and Roi Danzig. No wonder McGaughey was confident.
“Knowing you’re running the best horse, it was just a matter of it happening,” McGaughey said. “I went with a lot of confidence. That was a big thrill. That was the first one.”
A year later, McGaughey did it again, this time with Rhythm. Third in the Haskell three weeks earlier, Rhythm didn’t instill the same confidence as Easy Goer.
“I was disgusted with him, he wasn’t having that good of a 3-year-old year. I went to the Haskell thinking we had a pretty good chance and he finished third,” McGaughey said. “I wanted to change tactics, I told (Craig) Perret to take him back that day and it worked. It wasn’t a real strong race but he won.”
Eight years later, McGaughey returned with a horse he believed could win the Travers. With Coronado’s Quest, belief was one thing, confidence was another. Owned and bred by Stuart Janney III, the mercurial son of Forty Niner had won the Wood Memorial, Riva Ridge, Dwyer and Haskell in a row before the Travers. Still, there were questions as he took on Belmont winner Victory Gallop and five others.
“The thing with him was would he get the mile and a quarter and would he act all right?” McGaughey said. “We schooled him over here in the paddock and he acted up. I made up my mind that I was going to take him over there and put him in that Clark barn, so I didn’t have to walk him so far.”
Coronado’s Quest handled the atmosphere and Mike Smith handled the rest, staving off Victory Gallop and Raffie’s Majesty in a three-horse, two-nose photo.
“Mike Smith rode an unbelievable race on him and got him to go a mile and a quarter. He opened up and they came after him, but they just didn’t get there,” McGaughey said. “That really was a thrill, it was one of the first big races I had won for Stuart. He was excited. I was excited. I remember going into the Trustees’ Room and seeing how excited Mr. Phipps was for his nephew.
Since then, 15 editions of the Travers have been run, 16 horses have won (remember the dead heat between Alpha and Golden Ticket) and 15 trainers have won.
McGaughey has been involved. Congrats finished fifth in 2003 and Orb finished third last year.
There might have been others, McGaughey has forgotten.
Today, McGaughey goes for his fourth win in the Travers, sending out Mr Speaker. He’ll tie Elliott Burch with four wins and move one closer to the all-time leader, Bert Mulholland who leads with five
Win or lose, McGaughey wants to be in the game.
“It disturbs me on big days when we don’t have something in. Saturday, we have four, that suits me just fine,” McGaughey said. “Whether it’s the Travers or whatever, if I’m sitting in my office watching it on TV it doesn’t suit me too good. Once you get a taste of these big races…it’s just the bait.”Thef