Kiaran McLaughlin wants the missing piece to a puzzle he has yet to solve. It will continue to cost him many a night's sleep — tiny sacrifice considering the potential reward for completing the task.
By Alicia Wincze Hughes
Fellow trainer and Lexington native Shug McGaughey knows McLaughlin's quandary, the quest of trying to add a Kentucky Derby victory to a résumé that needs no defense. In his seventh swing at it last May, the Hall of Famer belted his 800-pound gorilla out of the park when he saddled Orb to victory in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Armed with promising contenders Top Billing and Honor Code in his barn as well as the most recent road map toward pay dirt, McGaughey is seemingly well equipped for his new duty of trying to join the 17 trainers who have hoisted the Kentucky Derby hardware more than once.
Herculean a feat as it is to prevail a single time in Thoroughbred racing's most famed classic, it has become just as daunting in recent years for trainers to repeat.
Beginning with Neil Drysdale in 2000, the first Saturday in May has seen 12 first-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainers in the last 14 runnings of the race with Bob Baffert (2002) and Carl Nafzger (2007) the only winning conditioners during that time who previously won it.
The entire Kentucky Derby prep season can be an overwhelming exercise in dodging pitfalls, never mind the pressure of putting a contender in the Churchill Downs starting gate come the big day.
It would stand to reason that figuring out how to survive the Derby trail and win the race would give those trainers a leg up on the less experienced. But that has not proven true recently.
Over the past 13 years, Drysdale (2000), Barclay Tagg (2003), John Servis (2004), John Shirreffs (2005), Michael Matz (2006) Rick Dutrow (2008), and Chip Woolley (2009) all won the Derby in their first tries.
"The history of the Derby has shown that a Derby winner can come from anywhere," said trainer Doug O'Neill, who won his first Derby in 2012 with I'll Have Another, just his third career starter in the race at the time. "This will hopefully be our fourth trip to the Derby this year, and I just think that there is no perfect prep to go into it.
"It's such an individual thing, it's an individual horse and individual team. You have to huddle up and just do what is in the horse's best interest to get there. You have to have them spot on for that first Saturday in May and it's a lot easier said than done."
O'Neill was in the position of trying to repeat his Kentucky Derby heroics a year ago when he returned to the race with Grade I winner Goldencents, who ended up finishing 17th.
Part of the reason behind the recent spate of first-time Derby-winning trainers might be the fact that those who have been there and done the victory lap must then strike a balance between heeding what history has told them works and carving out that individual program for each horse of which O'Neill spoke.
By contrast, those seeking their first Derby wins could be more apt to try something against the grain since they don't have an old voice in their head saying different — i.e. Matz bucking a longstanding trend by bringing Barbaro into the Derby off a five-week layoff.
"Any type of experience you have always helps, and to be able to draw on successful experience is a benefit," said Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm, whose homebred Super Saver was both the farm's and trainer Todd Pletcher's first Derby winner in 2010. "We do treat each horse as an individual but ... we've been down the road many times, so we can draw on the experiences that we feel like help us."
McLaughlin is in bright spirits these days, having taken early command of the Derby trail after saddling multiple graded stakes winner Cairo Prince to a 53/4-length win in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 25. To his further delight, he fits the profile of a trainer who could keep this streak of first-time victors on point.
Having come up under four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, McLaughlin has had five Derby starters himself, finishing second in his first solo try with Closing Argument in 2005.
Though the McLaughlin-trained Jazil won the Belmont Stakes after a dead-heat for fourth in the 2006 Kentucky Derby, the Lexington native is tabbing Cairo Prince as his best-ever contender for May.
A nose defeat at the hands of McGaughey's Honor Code in the Grade II Remsen Stakes last November is the only thing keeping Cairo Prince from being unbeaten in four starts.
"The other Derby contenders were nice horses but ... he's just that much better than any of those we've had before," McLaughlin said. "He's just that much better, mentally, physically, he is the whole package.
"I've stayed up at night thinking about the next race, whether it's the Fountain of Youth or Florida Derby ... when do we go to Kentucky if we get there, do you go early or do you stay where you're comfortable, and I don't have any of those answers yet," McLaughlin continued. "Those are all those things that weigh on you. But I would think that it's all up to the horse. Hopefully he overcomes some decisions we make or don't make."
McGaughey wisely let his gut make the calls last spring as Orb went from allowance winner to Kentucky Derby favorite and victor in about four months.
After decades of having the Derby elude him, McGaughey said he is definitely taking the lessons of a year ago and applying them toward his current program. As is always the case in his shedrow, however, the horses have right of first refusal.
"I think I took a lot away from last year. One of them is that everything has to go right," McGaughey said. "You have to have a special type of horse to handle that type of situation Derby week, Derby day and I do think both of these horses are that type that will handle that situation well. But also, I let them tell me. I'm not going to force them to do anything.
"I've always said I thought there was one with my name on it, and I think there is more. I think the way our operation is going right now in all aspects, we're going to have a lot more opportunities in the years ahead."
Before the current pattern emerged, past Derby experience seemed to be at a premium as Lukas, Baffert and Nick Zito combined to win each edition of the race from 1994-99.
More and more, however, their Derby-less comrades now have every reason to think, 'Why not us?'
"Those names (Zito, Baffert, Lukas) are great trainers and they probably get horses to the Derby more often than the rest of us," McLaughlin said. "But matter of fact is it's the horse. It's about the horse and hopefully, the horse luckily happened to end up with Kiaran McLaughlin this year."
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.