As I watched 6-1 Run of the River provide Shug McGaughey with his third 3-year-old debut winner in March at Gulfstream Sunday it dawned on me: clearly the generally accepted notion that all of the Hall of Famer’s horses need a start before showing up with their best is inaccurate, and likely producing overlays on extremely well-bred, often better-than-average horses who are in fact ready to fire right out of the box.
When it comes to 2-year-olds, there’s no doubt that McGaughey’s reputation as a trainer whose newcomers need one first is accurate. According to DRF Formulator, over the past five years, he’s just 3-for-74 (4%) with a paltry $0.26 ROI with juvenile first-time starters. Those three winners were Forward March, a $2.05-million KEESEP yearling and grandson of Miesque who won like a good thing at Monmouth in 2011, but never quite lived up to his original hype; and Honor Code and Top Billing, McGaughey’s top two 2014 Derby prospects who unfortunately were both knocked off the trail recently with injury. It would seem an occasional McGaughey trainee can overcome his trainer’s early patience at two (either on talent, his natural precocity, whatever), but it’s certainly a rarity.
It’s a different story with 3-year-olds—especially this season. McGaughey has won at 11% with a take-out beating ROI of $1.95 with his sophomore firsters overall in the past five years. Those numbers jump up significantly at Gulfstream, where Shug’s fresh faces win at 21% (43% in the money) with a $3.82 ROI. A good chunk of the profit came over the past month. So far in 2014, McGaughey’s 3-year-old firsters are three-for-nine with a second and two thirds (33% win/66% in the money), good for a very strong $4.33 ROI (including 5-1 Peter Island Mar. 1 and 9-2 La Madrina Mar. 29 in addition to Run of the River). It may also be worth noting that two of the three McGaughey 3-year-old firsters who didn’t hit the board at Gulfstream were by far the two longest prices—perhaps suggesting higher expectations for those who ran well over those who didn’t.
Usually when I stumble upon an interesting statistic I like to come up with some sort of logical, qualitative explanation for the situation to make it less likely that I’m just chasing variance. There’s definitely one here, and it lies in making the distinction between a trainer being patient in getting a horse ready for his first race vs. getting him ready for his entire career.
Since McGaughey juvenile newcomers at places like Saratoga fail to win first out, bettors assume that all of Shug’s firsters will be equally unprepared for their first starts. But what McGaughey does isn’t necessarily bring horses around slowly in relation to their first race—it’s so that they’ll peak later on—i.e. as 3-year-olds. So the 2-year-olds that debuted at Saratoga may not have been specifically less prepared to win first out than the winning sophomores at Gulfstream. They were just unveiled earlier on in the process and therefore required the additional conditioning gained from racing before being at their best. The 3-year-old winners might have been later-developing types or have had minor issues that kept them from racing, but since the goal was still likely for them to peak at three, they were either more cranked-up than the average McGaughey firster or had been in training for a significant enough amount of time that they were further along than their lack of a race would suggest—like in the case of Run of the River, who has published works in New York all the way back to last July.
Just out of curiosity, I went back through all of McGaughey’s graded stakes winners from the past five years who began their career with him and those runners required an average of 3.5 starts to break their maidens (I’d guess the average for all graded stakes winners is significantly lower). Last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Orb, for example, earned his diploma fourth out—so did top turfer Point of Entry. So there’s no doubt that McGaughey’s reputation as one who brings them along slowly (and succeeds with that methodology) is accurate, but it would still be wrong to assume that his later-debuting horses aren’t closer to hitting their best stride than their race-less record would suggest. Ill-fated multiple Grade I-winning 3-year-old filly Pine Island comes to mind--she was unveiled as a sophomore by McGaughey in March of 2006, and promptly blew up the tote at 28-1 before posting a 5-3-2-0 record in her next five tries.
I’d keep an eye on any McGaughey firsters who debut in the next month or so in New York or at Keeneland as potential bets for the reasons discussed above. Then I’d probably avoid the very late-developing 3-year-olds and certainly his 2-year-olds. But keep a very close eye on how McGaughey’s sophomore firsters do next year at Gulfstream—there’s a very good chance they’ll outrun their odds and show a flat-bet profit once again.
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