ELMONT, N.Y. — Shug McGaughey was in a surprisingly good mood at his Belmont Park barn Thursday morning.
Oh, sure, McGaughey should be chipper, since he trains Easy Goer, the heavy favorite in Saturday's $500,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the odds-on favorite for the Kentucky Derby, which will be run at Churchill Downs May 6.
But a trainer is never devoid of worries, and even a trainer with a horse as fast as Easy Goer can frown some. Cases in point, as far as McGaughey is concerned:
--Mary Jane McGaughey, the trainer's wife and Easy Goer's exercise rider until she became too great with child, is scheduled to deliver their second baby in late May.
--Seeking the Gold, a top 3-year-old last year and a horse expected to be one of the country's best handicap runners this year, jammed his ankle in Florida last month, just about the time he was going to make his 1989 debut.
--Grand Gala, a talented 3-year-old filly who was being pointed for the Kentucky Oaks, the day before the Derby, hurt a knee while running at Keeneland recently and underwent arthroscopic surgery for removal of a bone chip Thursday afternoon.
--Easy Goer, in his final workout before the Wood, breezed a half-mile Thursday at Belmont in :46 1/5, which was two or three seconds faster than McGaughey wanted.
Still, McGaughey was smiling at an early hour in his barn office. The opposition in the Wood is so nondescript that McGaughey's colt should be able to spot the others an extra-quick workout and still thrash them. The best of Easy Goer's five rivals may be Diamond Donnie, and he ran second, 13 lengths behind Easy Goer, at Aqueduct two weeks ago.
The 1 1/8-mile Wood will be only the second time around two turns for Easy Goer--he was second, after a bad start in the mud, in the 1 1/16-mile Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs last November--but McGaughey does not believe that this will be a factor. Neither does Aqueduct's track handicapper, who has made the son of Alydar a 1-9 favorite.
Earlier this year, McGaughey chastised David Carroll, Easy Goer's current exercise rider, when the trainer thought the colt had worked too fast at Gulfstream Park.
"I'm doing the best I can but I just can't hold him," Carroll told McGaughey.
So when Easy Goer and Carroll went considerably faster than McGaughey's expectations Thursday, the trainer accepted the workout calmly. "He was still running well within himself," McGaughey said. "A good horse like this one just runs that fast, that's all."
It was a morning that called for Barbra Streisand--one of those rare New York days so clear that you could see forever. Outside the barn after the workout, Mary Jane McGaughey, dressed in jeans and a floppy T-shirt that advertised her condition, held Easy Goer's lead shank while a groom hosed the horse's ankles in a bright spring sunshine that made the colt's butterscotch coat glisten.
A battalion of photographers shot the horse from every angle, as they might a model in a swimsuit, and Easy Goer just stood there with his handlers, impervious to the commotion.
Easy Goer's coat is not as bright as the near-red appearance of Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown champion with whom McGaughey's horse has been frequently compared. But just standing still, Easy Goer is a stunning animal. He has what horsemen generically call a star in the middle of his forehead, although the white marking could pass for a catawampus triangle. If McGaughey were given a Rorschach test with the same pattern, he might say that it resembles a map of Kentucky.
McGaughey mentioned Secretariat. "I know Secretariat got beat in the Wood but that's the reason a horse wins and pays $100 sometimes," he said. "But I sure don't expect this horse to lose Saturday."
Nor does he expect Easy Goer to lose at Churchill Downs two weeks from now. Easy Goer has run eight times, losing twice, and one of the defeats was at the Louisville track, but he still was a fast-closing second to Is It True that day and McGaughey has dismissed the outcome.
Easy Goer's other defeat was in the first race of his career, going six furlongs at Belmont last August, when he also broke slowly and came from behind but lost by a nose to a 2-year-old who wasn't even nominated for this year's Triple Crown races. Is It True was injured in his Breeders' Cup win over Easy Goer and only recently returned to the races.
In his second start, Easy Goer was a winner at Saratoga--his first of three victories over the same Is It True--and McGaughey thought there was something wrong with the track timer when it showed 1:22 3/5 for seven furlongs. Three weeks later, however, when Easy Goer ran a 6 1/2-furlong race back at Belmont in a sparkling 1:15 2/5, McGaughey knew that the Saratoga clock didn't need to be fixed.