Kiaran McLaughlin changed direction last week, ending a successful two-plus-decade run as one of the country’s leading trainers to return to work as a jockey’s agent for Luis Saez.
McLaughlin, a former assistant to D. Wayne Lukas who worked as Chris Antley’s agent in the early 1990s, left training officially Saturday at Gulfstream Park after a career that saw him win more than 1,500 races and earn more than $120.4 million in purses. McLaughlin saddled Horse of the Year Invasor to victories in the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Classic and 2007 Dubai World Cup and Jazil to a win in the 2006 Belmont Stakes. He achieved some of his biggest career victories at Saratoga, winning nearly all of the track’s major stakes including six editions of the Bernard Baruch and three of the Fourstardave.
Our team at The Saratoga Special was fortunate to cover many of those wins, pre- and post-race and we’ll always be thankful for McLaughlin’s accessibility from his golf cart in the morning.
So, where should we begin with a Throwback Thursday on McLaughlin? We could go back to 1997 when McLaughlin won his first graded stakes at Saratoga in the Fourstardave with Soviet Line, or to 1999 when he won the A Phenomenon Handicap (now the Alfred G. Vanderbilt) with Intidab.
Or maybe back to 2003, when McLaughlin swept the Bernard Baruch and Fourstardave with Trademark.
The 2012 meet – not that long ago all things considered – seems like a great place to start considering McLaughlin swept the Jim Dandy and Travers with Alpha, the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama with Questing and tacked on the Forego with Emcee to cap a banner season.
Sean watched the Jim Dandy with McLaughlin and captured the scene in the piece “New View” that appeared in the July 29, 2012 edition of The Special.
Kiaran McLaughlin watched the Jim Dandy, isolated and alone in a fourth-row box. Traditionally, a bigscreen viewer in the clubhouse, McLaughlin changed it up for Saturday’s Grade II stakes, winding up in a box, alone and in awe.
The trainer liked what he saw as Alpha gripped the race from the beginning, but didn’t say anything. McLaughlin watched the furlongs pass like he was counting sheep in his head. Then Alpha passed the quarter pole, splashing easily over the sloppy surface, comfortably on the lead.
“Come on, Alpha. Come on. Come on, Alpha,” McLaughlin yelled as Ramon Dominguez and Alpha turned into the stretch. McLaughlin stood up, clutching a wooden chair with his right hand and snapping a program in his left hand. Then he shook the chair like a stray dog who wouldn’t go home. The chair rattled off the wooden floor, once, twice, three, four times, clanking down with disdain.
Godolphin’s Alpha kept to the task, putting away Teeth Of The Dog and holding Neck ’n Neck at bay through the last furlong, hitting the wire 2 lengths clear in the $600,000 stakes.
“Yeah,’ McLaughlin whooped, watching Alpha gallop under the line. “Yeah . . . yeah . . . yeah.”
Then McLaughlin turned and looked around.
“My family left me,” he said, looking all around for his wife, son and daughter.
They were nowhere to be seen.
“That was a great ride,” McLaughlin said, walking down the steps to the winner’s circle. “Wowww, that’s huge. He was training great, I was worried about the track, he hasn’t run on the slop, but he’s been doing so well. No more Churchill Downs for this horse. Ever.”
Alpha hadn’t run since finishing 12th in the Kentucky Derby, now a distant memory.
McLaughlin met his son Ryan at the apron of the winner’s circle.
“Ryan...!” McLaughlin said, hugging his son.
McLaughlin’s wife, Letty met her husband there.
“I was in the box. Why didn’t you come up there?” he said.
“We never watch in the box,” she said (she was right).
Then he laughed. She laughed.
“We changed our TV, we always change our TV for better luck,” Letty said.
They wound up finding McLaughlin’s brother Neal at a faraway TV and watched it together.
They loved every minute of it.
Four weeks later McLaughlin celebrated another win by Alpha, this time a dead-heat score with Golden Ticket in the Grade 1 Travers. Sean again picked up on the action, pre- and post-race, and in between in his piece titled “Drawing Even” that appeared in the Aug. 26, 2012 edition.
Walking down the stairs from the box seats, Kiaran McLaughlin looked across the track to the big screen in the infield. He uttered one word that summed up the 143rd Travers Stakes.
The replay ran again, the crowd rising to a crescendo as McLaughlin’s Alpha and Ken McPeek’s Golden Ticket dropped their noses on the line.
“Too close to call,” McLaughlin said.
On the landing between the flights of stairs, the two trainers met. Like lights coming on at the end of a sixth-grade dance, they stood, staring, mumbling, bumbling.
“Not bad for two Lexington boys,” McPeek said.
“I’ll take a dead heat,” McLaughlin said.
The two trainers stared at the infield screen – RACE 12 in white bulbs, top left. PHOTO, blinking in red on the right. SPLIT TIMES, stacked on the bottom right. Nothing on the left side.
McPeek repeated the number 3 in his head.
McLaughlin, repeated the number 6, trying to will the outcome as anybody who’s ever waited for a photo does.
“3. 3. 3. 3. 3. 3. 3. 3.”
“6. 6. 6. 6. 6. 6. 6. 6.”
Family, friends and owners stacked up, a woman lost her shoe and nearly toppled down the stairs, NBC rolled its cameras, photo-finish readers tossed out their opinions like they mattered. Still, two trainers watched, an inch away from agony, an inch away from ecstasy.
Boom – 3, 6, 11, 7 slid across the board.
McPeek thrust both fists in the air, unleashing the number which he had been silently reciting. McLaughlin stood silent, unflinching. Seconds ticked. Then, McLaughlin screamed, “Dead heat.”
And there it was, DEAD HEAT in red bulbs next to the numbers.
McPeek and McLaughlin clutched, clawed, hugged, slapped each other and anybody as the realization that there would be no losers resonated on the trainers and the massive Travers Day crowd.
“That’s wonderful,” McPeek said.
“We’ll take it,” McLaughlin said.
The Travers was the third of four Grade 1 wins at the meet for Godolphin and Team McLaughlin – which also includes his brother Neal and sister-in-law Trish – and the fourth came a week later with Emcee.
Sean and Joe teamed up on that piece in the final issue of the 2012 season and Emcee’s victory was detailed in “Loudspeaker,” that appeared in the Sept. 2, 2012 edition of The Special.
Kiaran McLaughlin looked up and pumped his fist.
“Un-be-liev-able,” he said, walking to the winner’s circle.
Neal McLaughlin was more introspective, “I saw somebody come up the rail and I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s the Travers all over again.’ ”
Yes, for sure.
Unbelievable, no doubt.
And nothing like the Travers.
Team McLaughlin and Godolphin won their fourth Grade 1 stakes at the meet, taking Saturday’s Forego with Emcee, who ran down Jersey Town (the horse Neal saw get through on the rail) in the stretch to win by 4 1/2 lengths. Hamazing Destiny rallied late to catch Jersey Town by a neck for second. The winner covered 7 furlongs in 1:21 and won his third race of 2012 while continuing his ascension.
The 4-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song didn’t race until September of his 3-year-old season, winning a Belmont maiden easily. He added the allowance condition next out in February at Gulfstream, then jumped into the deep end – finishing third in the Grade 3 Tom Fool and fourth in the Grade 1 Carter at Aqueduct. He dominated another allowance at Belmont in May, then finished a game third in the Grade 1 Vanderbilt here Aug. 5 going 6 furlongs.
Before and after that magical 2012 meet there were plenty of other major scores.
How about 2006, when eventual Horse of the Year and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Invasor won the Whitney? Or Henny Hughes won the King’s Bishop? Jazil also won that year’s Belmont Stakes.
McLaughlin didn’t win the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer that year, but 2006 was to that point his best season. He ended the year with 80 wins and just a hair shy of $8.5 million in purses.
McLaughlin topped that in 2007 – the same year he won the first of two straight Bernard Baruchs with Shakis – and racked up 117 wins and almost $9.3 million in purses. That personal mark stood until 2015, when Team McLaughlin earned what will be a career-high $9,635,721 in earnings.
The following year McLaughlin won the Grade 1 Whitney with Frosted and Grade 1 Personal Ensign with Cavorting.
Frosted’s victory came just prior to the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select sale, when Godolphin and McLaughlin always seemed to find the winner’s circle. We described the win with a one-word headline on the cover – Cakewalk – and Sean set the scene in his piece “Rolling Dough” that appeared inside the Aug. 7, 2016 edition.
Kiaran McLaughlin leaned forward and stared at the corner TV, like he was trying to read a set of directions without his glasses. In the left corner chair in the first box from the center steps in the fourth row, writer Dave Grening sat in the box to his left, McLaughlin’s son, Ryan, daughter, Erin, and wife, Letty, watched to McLaughlin’s right.
The family moved like bees around a hive, turning, swiveling, switching from the big screen in the infield to the TV in the box to live racing on the track.
McLaughlin never moved. Neither did jockey Joel Rosario.
McLaughlin was the first to blink as Frosted ripped past the sixteenth pole in the Grade 1 Whitney. McLaughlin stood up, still silent, watching Frosted’s long, comfortable stride power to the wire. Inside the sixteenth pole, with nothing left to do but enjoy the moment, McLaughlin stretched his right arm, landing it on Erin’s shoulder, part high five, part hug, part punch in the air.
“Yessssssssss,” McLaughlin yelled.
Frosted continued his 4-year-old arrival, adding the $1.25 million Whitney jaunt to a $1.25 million Met Mile romp back in June.
McLaughlin and his team relished the emotional win, which followed that Met Mile masterpiece that followed a winter in Dubai and up-and-down end to the 2015 season.
The defeats never registered with Frosted. Or McLaughlin.
“No, I never worried about it. If you watched him train every day, you’d see why. Tomorrow morning, he’ll be nickering for the fillies, he eats everything, he’s very sound, no issues, he’s a happy horse. I would be worried about a normal horse, but he’s just not normal,” McLaughlin said. “Even like last year, I said I wanted to run in the Pennsylvania Derby after the Travers, it was 20 days, he just told us he could do it. He’s a neat horse. Great pedigree. Great conformation. Great mind.”
This year, Frosted, assistant Neal McLaughlin and exercise rider Rob Massey went to Dubai for the winter.
With William Buick aboard, Frosted won Al Maktoum Challenge by an easy 5 lengths but failed to threaten California Chrome in the Dubai World Cup, winding up fifth, beaten 5 1/2 lengths.
Frosted didn’t get the big prize, but the trip certainly didn’t hurt, as he returned, freshened and broke down the door in the Met Mile.
“I’m glad we went to Dubai, we had a wonderful track to train on over there, I wish we could have won the World Cup for the boss and maybe we can this year, but it’s all come together for the horse, he’s come back a better horse,” Neal McLaughlin said, after the Whitney. “Right now, he’s the best he’s ever been, from head to toe. The way he’s moving, the way he’s training, he’s never been better, we said that going into the Met Mile and we didn’t think he could take another step forward and he did. What a horse. What a horse.”
A few days before the Whitney, Neal and his wife, Trish, stood next to Frosted and ogled at his size, weight, demeanor. The boy had become a man.
“I said to Trish, ‘You know, he’s never looked better,’ ” Neal said, still emotional after the win. “I cried after the Met Mile. I’ve only cried three times, Alpha, Wedding Toast and now him. These horses are our lives and when you see one do what he’s done, that’s probably what Lebron James’ parents must feel like.”
For Frosted, the Met Mile was James’ 2016 NBA Finals, the day he arrived, breaking out from the shadow of American Pharoah.
Sure, he was a Grade 1 winner, but up to then, he was an almost horse.
After that, he was the now horse.
At the end of the day, Kiaran McLaughlin sat in a chair next to Godolphin’s Jimmy Bell as the Whitney replay lit up the Saratoga Room and thought back to last year, when seven losses overshadowed two wins.
“It was tough, but on the other hand, he won two big races, the Wood Memorial, Grade 1, was huge, and the Pennsylvania Derby was huge, after a third in the Travers,” Kiaran McLaughlin said. “It was tough, him losing, but yet, he won great races and he’s a top earner. I hope one day, I can say he’s the best horse I ever trained. It’s close.” And getting closer.
Most would agree that Frosted came close in the end but that Invasor was the best.
The Argentinean-bred never lost for McLaughlin on U.S. soil, winning six straight and eventually earning a spot in the Hall of Fame. Each of the six were Grade 1s – the Pimlico Special, Suburban, Whitney, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Donn Handicap and Dubai World Cup.
Gabby Gaudet, wrapping up her second season with The Special before heading off to big things on TV, wrote about Invasor the day he was inducted in the piece “Special Horse” that appeared in the Aug. 9, 2013 edition. (Backstory, we caught some heat from Team McLaughlin for a typo in the print version but fixed it up for the one below…)
Kiaran McLaughlin sat in the driver’s seat of his golf cart early Thursday morning, tucked between the trees next to the Morning Line Kitchen. Under his blue Shadwell hat, he peered at the Saratoga main track, his eyes following each horse. His attention broke occasionally as passers-by congratulated him on Invasor’s induction into the Hall of Fame. He replied each time with a humble smile, a slight nod of his head and a warm “thank you.”
“It’s very exciting,” McLaughlin said. “I think it’s actually the first horse to be inducted for the Maktoum family. So it’s really a neat thing to be involved in. It was great to work for the Maktoums. It still is—20 years now. It doesn’t get much better than this.”
The Argentina-bred Invasor began his career in Uruguay for trainer Anibal San Martin. The bay colt broke his maiden in his first start at the Uruguay track Maronas in February 2005 and from there began to make history. That same year, Invasor, won all three legs of the Uruguayan Triple Crown and earned the title of Uruguayan Horse of The Year.
Needless to say, he attracted much attention, including the attention of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Shadwell Stables team.
“Somebody from Shadwell went over from Dubai to look at endurance horses and they wanted to see this horse,” said McLaughlin. “He liked the horse and Sheikh Maktoum talked to Rick [Nichols]. Rick OK’d the decision and they went over and purchased him.”
Thus began the true test of Invasor’s talent. He made his first start outside of Uruguay in the U.A.E. Derby in March 2006. When he finished fourth behind winner Discreet Cat, the question arose—How good was he?
“He came in and we weren’t sure at all what he was going to be like,” said McLaughlin. “He trained well but we didn’t have any idea what we had. It wasn’t until the Pimlico Special that we said ‘wow.’ ”
Invasor dominated that Grade 1 on Preakness Day before going on to win his next five starts: the Grade 1 Suburban, Whitney, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Donn Hanicap and Dubai World Cup.
McLaughlin put the cart into gear and headed toward the starting gate in the chute to watch a set of his horses about to train.
Trish McLaughlin, Kiaran’s sister-in-law, hopped on to the back of the golf cart. The topic of Invasor immediately made her eyes light up. She didn’t need to say a word, the expression on her face told a story: She had a special place in her heart for the champion. Her license plate even reads INVASOR.
“That horse was very special to me and there will never be another like him,” said Trish. “I rubbed him. I normally take horses off the racetrack and re-school them but I didn’t have a horse in Florida that season and his groom went back to Mexico so my foreman and I really got to love the horse. [Invasor] and I really liked each other, so I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to rub him,’ and so I rubbed him before the Donn Handicap and the Dubai World Cup.”
Leading up to the Donn at Gulfstream Park, Trish and Invasor spent an hour every day together. It gave her time to enjoy the horse’s company and gave him time to unwind.
“I told everyone,” said Trish. “Just leave me alone from 9 o’clock in the morning until 10. Just leave me alone so I can look after him. And everybody did.”
And from then on, the duo never separated. When the time came to travel to the 2007 Dubai World Cup, Trish noticed a change in Invasor.
A good change.
“I’ve never been so confident in my whole career with Kiaran as I did going into the World Cup,” said Trish. “Just from how [Invasor] was training. He put on like 150 pounds. I just had so much confidence in him. I mean anything could’ve happened but I knew he was going to win.
“Before the World Cup, we brought him outside for Shiekh Hamdan to look at and he just stood there. He had dapples and he just looked like a million dollars.”
Invasor went on to win the World Cup in what both Trish and McLaughlin feel was the most trying race of his career. It was a race that couldn’t go unwatched. Turning for home Invasor and Premium Tap battled head-to-head. Invasor. Premium Tap. Invasor. Premium Tap. A few yards before the wire Invasor got his head in front and grew a new level of confidence. He floated away from his rival, adding distance to the gap with every stride.
“Dubai was the toughest race he ever ran,” said Trish. “This was a horse that would come back and take a sip of water and be cooled out. After the Breeders’ Cup, he took two turns, took a sip of water and was cooled out. He wasn’t even blowing, you wouldn’t have even known he ran. But the World Cup really got him. He was blowing, he drank a bucket of water and I think that’s the most horse we’ve ever seen.”
Invasor retired later that year in June with over $7.8 million in earnings and an 11-win record out of 12 starts. The pride of Shadwell stands at the farm in Kentucky.