Orthodox horse trainer OK with synthetics

Sep 1, 2009 5:03 PM
Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

McLaughlin: still unsure of its future

Even though Kiaran McLaughlin was weaned in Blue Grass country and now spends most of his time winning races on the East Coast, he’s no stranger to scenic Santa Anita.

Born in Lexington, Ky., and a mainstay on the New York, Florida and Kentucky circuits for the better part of 15 years, McLaughlin spent some time at the historic Arcadia track under the tutelage of D. Wayne Lukas more than two decades ago, when the Hall of Fame trainer was in his heyday. If the fates allow, McLaughlin will return to Santa Anita Nov. 6 and 7 when the Oak Tree Racing Association hosts the Breeders’ Cup for the second consecutive year.

McLaughlin, who turns 49 on Nov. 15, is a traditionalist at heart, racing on conventional dirt surfaces the majority of the time. But he has an open mind when it comes to synthetic tracks, which have generated considerable controversy since their introduction in the U.S. several years back.

All of Southern California’s major tracks have gone synthetic: Del Mar (Polytrack), Hollywood Park (Cushion Track), and Santa Anita (Pro-Ride). McLaughlin was disappointed in a 2007 foray to Santa Anita, when Divine Park finished ninth of 14 as the 7-2 second choice behind front-running winner Johnny Eves in the Grade I Malibu Stakes.

But unlike Jess Jackson, majority owner of super filly Rachel Alexandra, who has labeled synthetic tracks "plastic" and declared he will not run Rachel on Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride in the Breeders’ Cup, McLaughlin is keeping an open mind.

He had initially considered running UAE Triple Crown winner Asian Boy in the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Sept. 6 rather than face Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward at Saratoga on Sept. 5, but rather than ship cross country, changed his mind and will give the filly eight pounds in the Woodward. If all goes well beyond that, the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 7 could be a logical option.

"We hate to give Rachel eight pounds in the Woodward (older horses carry 126 in the weight-for-age race at 1 1/8 miles, 3-year-old fillies, 118)," McLaughlin said. "Had we run Asiatic Boy at Del Mar, it would have given us an indication as to how he might handle synthetics in the future, particularly in Dubai, where Sheikh Mohammed is installing Tapeta (a synthetic surface which is used at Golden Gate Fields in Northern California).

"I like training on the synthetics," continued McLaughlin, who does so at the Greentree Stable venue near Saratoga. "I’m fortunate enough to have horses for Sheikh Mohammed at Greentree and we train on it every day, and the horses are doing well. I enjoy running some horses on synthetics that do well on it, but I’m not racing every day on it, so I don’t have a strong feeling about it one way or the other.

"Racing on synthetics does, however, present a problem when giving instructions to a rider, because you don’t know how the surface is playing, whether speed is good, or it’s better to come from well back. Synthetics are a little bit different, but I think we’ll all get accustomed to it in time, and I’m sure they are in California, running on it every day. But personally, I’m not looking to run on it every day."

McLaughlin, who saddled 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor to a 6-1 upset over 11-10 favorite Bernardini in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs that year, admits certain horses prefer artificial surfaces. "It appears that turf horses seem to do better on synthetics than dirt horses," he said. "But, you don’t know until you give it a try. But like I said, I like training on it, so it’s hard to say I don’t like it when the horses do well training on it. It’s just that I don’t have that much experience racing on it."

One of McLaughlin’s promising young horses is maiden winner Liston, a half-brother to the Grade I stakes-winning filly Country Star. Liston could make his start in the Grade II Belmont Futurity at seven furlongs on Sept. 19, rather than the Grade I Hopeful at seven furlongs Sept. 7 at Saratoga. "Coming back in the Hopeful would be a little bit quick," McLaughlin said.

 Justenuffhumor, who gave McLaughlin his third straight win in the 1 1/8-mile Bernard Baruch on turf last Friday, winning for the sixth straight time this year, is uncertain for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. "We’re not sure about that race," McLaughlin said, "because we usually give up the better horses, if they’re qualified, to Godolphin."

Like everyone, McLaughlin would relish a showdown between Rachel Alexandra and the undefeated champion mare, Zenyatta, winner of all of her 12 races.

"I would love to see them run against each other, somewhere, somehow, because they’re two great fillies," McLaughlin said. "But that’s his (Jackson’s) personal opinion, and that’s the way it is. It would be great for the industry to see them hook up somewhere, sometime."

THE HOMESTRETCH

Word has it that when the bankruptcy sale of Santa Anita is announced Sept. 13, the track will be owned by Indians, as in native Americans … Lookalikes: Curly of the Three Stooges and Raiders’ coach Tom Cable … Obama is ever-present. He’s on TV more than Lucy reruns.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ed Golden