Vanlandingham's development into a star racehorse this season has confirmed something Midwesterners have known for the past few years: Shug McGaughey is one of the best young trainers in America.
Under the tutelage of the 34-year-old Kentuckian, Vanlandingham has earned more than $1 million against top competition, and can add to his credentials in today's Washington, D.C. International at Laurel. This much is certain: he will be in front for at least part of the race.
McGaughey's success with Vanlandingham and the rest of his operation attracted the attention of the Phipps family, which owns one of America's great racing stables. The family hired McGaughey, effective later this year, to try to revive its waning fortunes, ensuring that the young horseman will be permanently in the national limelight.
It's uncertain, however, whether he deserves congratulations or condolences, for the Phipps job is the most demanding in the business.
Eddie Neloy died of a heart attack while he was the Phipps' trainer; Roger Laurin was plunged into depression and finally quit because of the pressures of the job; Angel Penna was regarded as the one of the world's great trainers when he went to work for Phipps and a failure upon his departure.
McGaughey is unfazed. "I hope the job doesn't burn me out," he said. "I don't think it will. I've been in pressure situations before."
Claude J. (Shug) McGaughey III grew up in horse country, Lexington, Ky., but he didn't have any connections in the business. "I just learned about horses by betting on them," he said. McGaughey learned about training as an assistant to David Whiteley in New York, then went back home and started his own operation.
He was very soon dominating the game at Churchill Downs and the other tracks where he campaigned. He developed such horses as Pine Circle and Lass Trump, who won major stakes around the country.
But McGaughey's most important horse -- and perhaps his most perplexing horse -- has been Vanlandingham. Knocked out of action at 3 by an injury, he came back strong this season to win both the Suburban Handicap and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park with powerhouse performances.
Between those victories, he was beaten soundly by the same group of rivals.
The explanation for Vanlandingham's seemingly erratic form occurred to many handicappers before it did to McGaughey. It's a harsh thing to say about the horse, or any creature for that matter, but Vanlandingham may not have too much heart.
The colt won four races this year by leading all the way. In his other four starts, he faced the classy speedster Track Barron, had to fight for the early lead and lost them all.
In his last start, the Breeders' Cup Classic, he finished next to last after an early head-and-head battle. Is he a one-dimensional front-runner?
"I hate to say it, but after the way he ran in the Breeders' Cup that might be right," McGaughey conceded. "I thought he was ready to run a big race, and I thought he could sit just behind Track Barron, but he spit the bit out."
It was owner John Ed Anthony's idea to try Vanlandingham on the grass for the first time in the International, and McGaughey conceded "it's a big guess" about whether the colt will adapt to turf. But he'll have one edge here.
There is nobody in the field with Vanlandingham's kind of speed; all his rivals are willing to concede him the early lead. Under those circumstances, he is capable of pulling an upset.
A victory by Vanlandingham would add a further dimension to McGaughey's achievements. He operates mostly at tracks that don't have turf courses, and he said, "I've won three or four grass races in my life."
He's never won a major stake on the turf. But even if Vanlandingham doesn't do the job this afternoon, it is just a matter of time before McGaughey passes this and many other milestones.