McLaughlin seeks divine intervention at Santa Anita

Dec 11, 2007 2:03 AM

There will be at least one new face when Santa Anita opens on Dec. 26 and it won’t be Santa Claus. Kiaran McLaughlin is coming to town.

The trainer of 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor plans to bring undefeated Withers winner Divine Park for the $250,000 Malibu Stakes, traditional opening day feature at the 85-day winter/spring meet that runs through April 20.

"He’s a top 3-year-old, he’s three for three, he’s undefeated, and he won (an allowance race) on the Polytrack at Keeneland," McLaughlin said. "Those are the reasons we’re pointing to the Malibu. It’s quite a prestigious race. It’s a Grade I for straight 3-year-olds at seven-eighths and a great starting point for him to return."

Divine Park had been sidelined with a bruised cannon bone after winning the Withers by 3« lengths last April 28. The son of Chester House is owned by James J. Barry.

McLaughlin, a 47-year-old native of Lexington, Ky., earned his spurs in Dubai and on the East Coast, but this won’t be his first venture to Southern California. In fact, Lady of Venice, now trained by McLaughlin after being transferred from suspended Patrick Biancone, finished third in the Grade I Matriarch at Hollywood Park on Nov. 25. A day earlier, McLaughlin saddled Shadwell’s Daahar to a 2½-length upset over Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner and 1-2 favorite Midnight Lute in the Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.

"But as for Kiaran McLaughlin’s stable, we haven’t been to California in a while, and I’m not coming out there to relocate or anything; the Malibu is just a perfect spot for Divine Park," McLaughlin said. "I did race at Santa Anita in 1993 in the Breeders’ Cup, and I was stabled out there with Wayne Lukas for a year and a half back in 1985 and ”˜86."

Like many horsemen not based year-round in Southern California, McLaughlin cites Santa Anita’s synthetic Cushion Track as an integral reason for shipping 3,000 miles to run.

"It’s been a long time since Divine Park has run (it will be eight months from the Withers to the Malibu), but he trains like a top horse and we didn’t want to run him in a prep race a month out (from the Malibu) and have him run off the charts with a big number, then possibly react or bounce or not run as well in the Malibu. So we decided to train up to the race and run off of a layoff."

The Malibu is the first leg of the Strub Series, the middle leg of which is the San Fernando Stakes at a mile and a sixteenth, capped by the Strub Stakes at a mile and an eighth. Those two races are exclusively for 4-year-olds and McLaughlin left the door open as to whether Divine Park would compete in them beyond the Malibu.

"It’s a possibility," he said. "The other possibility is Dubai, either the ($1 million) Godolphin Mile or even the ($6 million) World Cup." Those races will be run on March 29.

McLaughlin saddled Invasor to win the World Cup in 2007, upsetting previously unbeaten Discreet Cat. Invasor has since been retired to stud, but McLaughlin keeps tabs on his former star.

"He’s at Shadwell in Lexington, and I went to see him in September," McLaughlin said. "He looks great and he’s doing well. I think he’ll like his new job."

If he likes it as much as McLaughlin does his, Invasor will excel. Racing, like other sports, faces many challenges, but optimist McLaughlin prefers to look at the bright side.

"I’m always a positive thinker," he said, "and I think as many questions and negative things as there are, I look at the glass as half full. I’m very pleased with purses in New York and happy to be here racing. At the top level, purses all around the country are great.

"Tracks with the new synthetic surfaces are still a question mark as to what type of horse will like them, because the surfaces are still in their early stages, but I think everybody is trying to do the right thing.

"I feel like I’m coming off my best year ever (third nationally in purse earnings with more than $12 million), and last year was my second-best year. It’s hard to think we’re going to keep going this well, but hopefully, we will."

If not, there’s always Texas Hold’em. If there’s one thing McLaughlin loves more than his family and his horses, it’s poker.

"I played in the World Series of Poker this year (at the Rio in Las Vegas) and made it through day one," he said. "On day two, I got to the 12th hour, and literally, after 12 hours, I got knocked out, but I had fun.

"I played at Foxwoods three weeks ago and finished 29th, but they paid only through 20th, but it was fun, too. I played about 12 hours with top players in a $3,000 buy-in."

The homestretch

”¡ The Breeders Cup has announced it will add three races to its Friday program at Oak Tree next Oct. 24. They include the $1 million Turf Sprint at about 6½ furlongs for 3-year-olds and up; the $1 million Juvenile Fillies Turf for 2-year-old fillies and the $500,000 Dirt Marathon at 1½ miles for 3-year-olds and up. Oak Tree also is a candidate to host the Breeders Cup again in 2009. Next year’s event will take place on Oct. 24 and 25.

”¡ Hot barns: Neil Drysdale, Mike Mitchell, Mike Puype.

”¡ I see where Monica Seles is planning a comeback. Just what tennis needs — more grunts.

”¡ And here’s why Ireland never has money problems. Its capital is Dublin.