There are comebacks, and then there are comebacks. At Belmont Park last week, there was Woody Stephens, 77, practically starting from scratch in reorganizing his racing stable. And around the corner and down the road from him was Shug McGaughey, 40, admitting to a potentially ruinous drinking problem and trying to reassemble his life and career.
Both trainers have known the roars of the crowd and the highs of the winner's circle. Stephens, 62 years in racing, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1976, long before he won the Belmont Stakes a record five consecutive years in the 1980s.
McGaughey has a grass-roots start toward the Hall of Fame. He was voted trainer of the year once, won two Breeders' Cup races on the same day in 1989 and has trained such standouts as Easy Goer, Rhythm, Vanlandingham and Personal Ensign, a filly who never lost a race.
Stephens says that his best horse wasn't one of his Belmont winners, but rather a colt who never won a stake.
"Danzig ran three times (in 1979-80) and he won all three," Stephens said. "But he had terrible knees. I remember running him at 2 and (trainer) LeRoy (Jolley) says to me before the race that he's got a real good colt running. 'If he's real good, LeRoy,' I said, 'he'll be second.'
"When Danzig was 3, I told Seth (Hancock of Claiborne Farm) that if we ran this horse anymore, we'd destroy him. Seth did what he had to do and retired him. He knew I'd never run a horse that good sore."
McGaughey brought his problems on himself, frequently sitting down to a nightly glass of wine at dinner and not knowing when to quit. This year, he has spent a month in a nationally known rehabilitation center in Minnesota, and he attends five Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week in New York.
Stephens was never linked to any temperance leagues. He could just as easily be found at the track bar as at the track barn, having a Scotch with the owner of a horse after a big race.
"Drinkin' has never got in my way of doin' the job, though," Stephens said the other day.
His recent health problems may have more to do with his one-time cigarette habit of three packs a day. He had emphysema when he underwent heart surgery for a triple bypass last year.
"I knew I was in trouble at Keeneland when I watched four races from (track general manager) Bill Greeley's office," said Stephens, no more craggy than he was before. If the late Chester Gould had ever drawn him for the Dick Tracy strip, Stephens would have looked like B.O. Plenty.
"I've had a rough trip and they were trying to put me in a box," Stephens said. "I think the world knows that."
Sandy Bruno, Stephens' assistant, kept the stable together while he was away, but many of the biggest clients, including Henryk deKwiatkowski, whose Conquistador Cielo and Danzig Connection accounted for two-fifths of the Belmonts, sent their stock elsewhere.
Stephens returned to action this winter in Florida, and now he's back at his Belmont base, which has been home since 1943. He has eight horses, five of which he owns. Money is not a consideration, it's just that Stephens owns five broodmares and he has retained some stallion breeding shares and--as he will tell you--who is better suited to train the offspring?
Earlier the same morning, McGaughey talked openly about his problems. There were rumors in Florida all winter about his stable being in disarray, and of friction with his wife, Mary Jane, who used to gallop Easy Goer. The rumors persisted when Defensive Play, one of McGaughey's horses, came to Santa Anita for a campaign that included a victory in the Strub Stakes and his trainer didn't watch him run once.
"That had nothing to do with anything," McGaughey said. "The horse was in good hands with (Santa Anita trainer) Willard Proctor out there. I just didn't make the trips. I had all my horses back in Florida, and those in-and-out cross-country trips can kill you."
With the permission of his principal owners, the Ogden Phipps family, McGaughey went to Minnesota for treatment in early April.
Asked a few days before the Belmont Stakes when he had had his last drink, McGaughey said: "Sixty-two days ago today. I had to do something before my drinking got worse, and a friend of mine helped me find the place to go. I was afraid that if I didn't do something, it would get to the point where it would be out of my control. The month in Minnesota, I learned an awful lot about myself that I didn't know."
McGaughey still goes where people drink.
"I drink all the club soda there is now," he said. "I probably drink a gallon a night. When they serve it to me, I don't tell them to bring a glass, I tell them to use the shaker."
McGaughey is also trying to break the cigarette habit that Stephens once had. "I still smoke about a half-pack a day," McGaughey said. "That's next."
Even without rehabilitation, Woody Stephens has given up Scotch. "I'm a vodka man now," he said. "Got to liking it last summer."
Stephens was asked if his doctors approved.
"They didn't have much choice," he said. "I'd change doctors if they didn't like what I was doin'."
Horse Racing Notes
The first of six consecutive Friday-night cards will be run tonight at Hollywood Park, with the first post at 7. Last year, the average attendance for four night programs was 23,727. . . . On Saturday, Brought to Mind, winner of the Hawthorne Handicap last month, carries high weight of 118 pounds in the $150,000 Milady Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles. Others in the eight-horse field are Vielle Vigne, Luna Elegante, Fit To Scout, Carita Tostada, Venturilla, La Kaldoun and Formidable Lady.
A small field, headed by Best Pal and Compelling Sound, is likely for Sunday's $150,000 Silver Screen Handicap for 3-year-olds at 1 1/8 miles. Olympio, fourth in the Preakness after winning the Arkansas Derby, and Sea Cadet, fourth in the Jersey Derby, won't be running, according to trainer Ron McAnally. They're candidates for the Swaps on July 7. . . . Hollywood Park will take betting on Saturday's $400,000 Golden Gate Handicap, a 1 3/8-mile turf race. Several of Hollywood's top jockeys will be riding in the race, with Chris McCarron aboard Mashkour and Corey Nakatani astride Pleasant Variety. They are the high weights at 116 pounds apiece. Others running are Missionary Ridge, Hecquet, Mr. Riv, Aksar, Forty Niner Days, Soft Machine and River Warden
Summer Squall, who won an allowance race by 7 1/2 lengths at Churchill Downs last Saturday, will be flown to California and is scheduled to arrive at Hollywood Park next Tuesday. Last year's Preakness winner will probably have two workouts in preparation for the $1-million Hollywood Gold Cup on June 29. . . . Asia, a 5-year-old gelded son of Danzig, ran six furlongs in 1:08 1/5 at Hollywood Thursday, missing Sam Who's track record by a fifth of a second. Asia beat Blue Eyed Danny by a neck. . . . Hansel blew his right front shoe, possibly at the eighth pole, while winning the Belmont Stakes.