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Run for the Roses is racing’s most challenging prize

Feb 5, 2008 12:40 AM

(With apologies to the late Red Buttons):

Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally may have had a dinner, but he never won the Kentucky Derby. Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel may have had a dinner, but he never won the Kentucky Derby. And Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella may have had a dinner, but he never won the Kentucky Derby.

It ain’t easy to get there, let alone win the world’s most famous horse race. Every owner and trainer with a horse that can outrun a fat man, as the saying goes, dreams of winning the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. At best, that chance comes along only once a year, but more realistically, perhaps just once in a lifetime, because 3-year-olds alone are eligible and the stars have to be aligned with Mars to produce a victory.

Even an accomplished horsemen such as Kiaran McLaughlin has been shut out, although the 47-year-old Lexington, Ky. native came nearer than most with only two starters. Closing Argument, who, despite an eventful trip in 2005, finished second at 71-1, a half-length behind 50-1 winner Giacomo. The other was Jazil, who dead-heated with Brother Derek for fourth in 2006 behind the ill-fated Barbaro.

For coming even that close, credit should be attributable in part to the foundation provided by his former mentor, Triple Crown guru D. Wayne Lukas, who hired McLaughlin as an assistant in 1985. With 13 Triple Crown triumphs, Lukas shares the record with the legendary Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. Lukas also has four victories in the Kentucky Derby.

"It’s a very difficult race to win, because everybody’s trying to win it," McLaughlin said of the Run for the Roses, which will be contested for the 134th time on May 1 at Churchill Downs. "Twenty horses run in it every year, and some of them often have a troubled trip, so the best horse doesn’t always win. That’s what makes it so tough.

"With however many thousands of foals are out there (some 40,000 each year), everybody’s trying to win the Kentucky Derby, so it’s very hard to do under the best of circumstances. But that said, it doesn’t make you any less of a horse trainer, or horse owner or breeder, if you don’t. It’s tough to get it done and it’s only run once a year."

McLaughlin, a consummate trainer, poker player and gentleman, not necessarily in that order, has two candidates with Triple Crown aspirations this year, although one (Wincat) must prove he is Kentucky Derby timber. A Pennsylvania-bred son of 2002 European 2-year-old champion Hold That Tiger, Wincat won by 6 3/4 lengths at Philadelphia Park last Dec. 28. He was third in the Swale Stakes at 6 ½ furlongs last Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Despite what some recent publications have printed, Wincat is not a colt. He was gelded last summer, McLaughlin said.

"You’d have to consider Wincat for the Kentucky Derby, but he is a gelding," McLaughlin pointed out before the Swale, "so it’s not like we’d be rushing to that race, because he’s only worth what he can earn (as opposed to what he would bring as a stallion were he to win the Derby as a colt), so we might be shopping around for other spots. But if he’s that good, we’ll aim for the Derby."

A more likely contender is Make the Point, a Kentucky-bred son of Menefee, who is scheduled to make his next start in a major Derby prep, the Grade II Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream on Feb. 24.

The homestretch

”¡ McLaughlin and his peers on the East Coast are simpatico toward their Santa Anita cohorts, who are enduring unprecedented training hurdles due to the flawed Cushion Track.

"We all think it’s very sad and an unfortunate situation for management and horsemen," McLaughlin said. "It’s kind of a shame to have jumped on the synthetic surfaces so quick and mandated (by the California Horse Racing Board) that it be there, when it’s still so early (in its development). Changes are slow to come in our business, and yet they said we’ve got to have Polytrack, and now! I think most people back here just feel bad for everybody, top to bottom, jockeys, trainers, owners, management. It’s a tough situation."

In other news from McLaughlin’s barn: Lady of Venice (third in the Grade I Matriarch) "is doing well at Palm Meadows, just jogging now, and we’ll point for Keeneland. (Bernard Baruch winner) Shakis is back in full training, but we’re not sure what race we’re pointing for. It probably will be at Keeneland, also. Stream of Gold (second to English Channel in the Grade I Turf Cup at Belmont) is going in the Gulfstream Park Turf on Feb. 23 at a mile and three eighths."

Dahaar (who upset Sprint champion Midnight Lute in the Grade I Cigar Mile) was a candidate for the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 29, before he finished a disappointing seventh at odds-on in the Donn Handicap behind Spring at Last (who also is ticketed for the World Cup). Divine Park, who finished fifth behind Johnny Eves in the Grade I Malibu at Santa Anita, is headed for the Grade II General George Breeders’ Cup Handicap at Laurel on Feb. 18.

”¡ And don’t waste a dime in Kentucky Derby future book wagers on Slew’s Tiznow. Trainer Greg Fox reports the runner-up in the Grade I Keeneland Breeders’ Futurity last year had colic surgery two weeks ago and is off the Triple Crown trail.

”¡ Best Super Bowl prop bet I saw was who would crack a smile first, Bill Belichick or Tom Coughlin?