By participating in the last two runnings of the Kentucky Derby, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has raised his profile among casual observers of the North American racing scene. But for those who follow the sport regularly, McLaughlin is known as a veteran horseman who has enjoyed international success.
During a career that began in the early 1980’s, McLaughlin served as an assistant to North America’s most prolific trainer, D. Wayne Lukas; he handled the business affairs for the talented, but troubled jockey Chris Antley and oversaw the training of 200 horses for the Maktoum family of the United Arab Emirates.
The trainer of a public stable since 2003, McLaughlin has built his operation to 75 horses based at two locations in New York. While the Maktoum family accounts for approximately half of his stable, McLaughlin has several North American-based clients as well.
In 2005, McLaughlin came within one-half length of pulling one of the biggest upsets in Kentucky Derby history when Closing Argument, a 71-1 longshot, was outfinished by 50-1 shot Giacomo. McLaughlin returned to the Kentucky Derby in 2006, saddling fourth-place finisher Jazil for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Shadwell Farm as well as 14th-place finisher Flashy Bull for the North American syndicate West Point Thoroughbreds, LLC.
McLaughlin could have had a third runner in the Derby, but he and owner John Dillon decided to pass the race with the multiple stakes winning gelding Like Now, who ran in the Preakness instead.
McLaughlin, 45, has navigated the last eight years of his life while suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, a neurological disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. He was diagnosed with the disease in October 1998, not long before he won Aqueduct’s Grade 2 Knickerbocker Handicap with Sahm, owned by Shadwell.
“When I was first diagnosed in October of 1998 I went into a depression,” McLaughlin said. “I didn’t realize it at the time but I was depressed for 30 days. I didn’t want to get off the couch. Sahm won the Knickerbocker and I wasn’t there at the races.”
At that time, McLaughlin was splitting his time between Dubai and North America. By early December of 1998 he was back in Dubai and in February of 1999, he suffered a major setback when he developed blurred vision and needed a cane to walk.
For the last seven years, he has taken a daily injection of Copaxine, a class of drug called beta interferon, which inhibits certain white blood cells and in some studies has reduced the severity and number of multiple sclerosis attacks.
“I went on medication in June 1999 and since then I had no setbacks at all,” McLaughlin said “I feel very fortunate. I have MS, but I have it in my hip pocket.”
McLaughlin is a native of Lexington, Ky., and attended the University of Kentucky before working for trainers James Burchell and John Hennig, who would later become his father-in-law, David Kassen and Tim Muckler.
In 1985, McLaughlin started working for Lukas, where he worked closely with the multiple champion filly Open Mind, and stakes winners Slew City Slew and Dynaformer. In 1992, McLaughlin and his wife Letty, the sister of New York trainer Mark Hennig, wanted to settle down with their infant daughter. So, McLaughlin quit Lukas and began booking mounts for jockey Chris Antley, one of the more talented riders on the New York circuit.
But after 18 months, Antley fell out of favor with the top New York trainers and soon left for California. McLaughlin, through acquaintances such as Helen Alexander, Anthony Stroud and Rick Nichols, was offered a position in Dubai to work for Mohammed al Maktoum’s Godolphin Racing.
“I had 100 horses to train then later I ended up breaking 100 yearlings,” McLaughlin said. “I had a lot of good help, but I was overseeing 200 horses so I was just like a European trainer with a big yard.”
McLaughlin quickly learned there many differences between training in Dubai and America. First and foremost was the fact that medication was prohibited in Dubai.
“That was an education,” McLaughlin said. “I remember I had a filly, one of the first runners I had that was absolutely a crazy filly. She threw herself down on the racetrack more than once. I said to the vet what can we do? We’ve got to do something to settle her nerves. He said you can’t do anything to medicate here. On the track in Dubai she was perfect. So you live and learn that medication is really overrated”.
McLaughlin said the anti-bleeding medication Lasix is not overrated. It is a medication he uses on most of his horses that race in North America. “Lasix is not overrated,” McLaughlin said. “But as medication goes a lot of people think you need Bute and anti-inflammatories, and this and that, and it was proved to me that you didn’t. But Lasix is an important performance-enhancing drug because I just feel like a lot of horses bleed. I wouldn’t take a horse to Dubai that is a bleeder.”
McLaughlin was the leading trainer at Nad al Sheba in Dubai three times: 1994-95; 1995-96, and 2002-03. Among the top horses McLaughlin trained during his time in Dubai were Dumaani, who won the $1.5 million, Group 2 Keio Hai Springs Cup in Japan and Key of Luck, who won the inaugural running of the Dubai Duty Free.
``Key of Luck was probably the best horse I trained,’’ McLaughlin said. ``He won the [Dubai] Duty free by 20 lengths the night Cigar won the World Cup.’’
While McLaughlin learned about medication, he helped bring about a few changes in Dubai racing. McLaughlin helped introduce outriders to Dubai.
“They were asking my opinion on improvements for there,’’ McLaughlin said. ``When I first went over there they didn’t have any outriders. My point was if a rider went down in a race you’d need to stop the race if it was once around. And they got outriders.’’
McLaughlin also introduced the concept of keeping assistant starters in the stall with the horses. ``The starting gate was a real interesting situation when I first got there,’’ McLaughlin said. ``The first horse I had that was meant to run went in and a horse next to him flipped. The rider stepped off my horse because he was acting up and they opened the doors and had a false start. My horse went loose and had to be scratched. I said to them back them out, but they didn’t have the personnel. They’d load them and duck under the front door so they were not in with them. So there were a lot of things to talk about; the starting gate was a big issue.’’
While McLaughlin said he enjoyed the lifestyle of Dubai, something he said was akin to Disney World, he and Letty wanted to raise their two children, daughter Erin, 15, and son Ryan, 12, in America.
``It was hard to leave, it was a great lifestyle for my wife and I having a maid and a cook; we were living like kings and queens,’’ McLaughlin said. ``We opted to come back to America and raise our kids in New York. That’s where our home is and we just felt like it was the right thing to do.’’
McLaughlin enjoyed success right away in 2003. Among his stable stars were the Irish-bred Volga, who won the Grade 1 E.P Taylor at Woodbine, and the South African-bred Trademark, who won the Bernard Baruch and Fourstardave, both Grade 2 events at Saratoga.
In 2004, McLaughlin won 84 races from 462 starters and his horses earned more than $5.5 million in purse money. He won multiple stakes with the likes of Seattle Fitz, Randaroo, and Bending Strings.
In 2005, McLaughlin won 60 races from 424 starters. In addition to saddling Closing Argument to a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, McLaughlin also sent out Henny Hughes to a second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile just three weeks after taking over the training of the horse.
In addition to training, McLaughlin has got involved with many of the off-the-track issues confronting racing. He is on the board of directors of the New York Thoroughbred Horseman’s Association, which is trying to get their voice heard on many issues confronting New York racing.
In New York, slot machines are on the horizon which should bring a significant increase to that state’s purse structure. There is also the issue of who will win the franchise to operate the three New York tracks: Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. The New York Racing Association currently holds the franchise, but that is about to expire on Dec. 31, 2007.
``Sometimes in New York we get down that we don’t have slots and the purses aren’t where they could be. but the purses are damn good when you look around the country,’’ McLaughlin said. ``The slots would be just a huge raise for us and help us out and hopefully we get there sooner or later.’’
McLaughlin said he would prefer to remain training horses in North America for a long time. He did not, however, rule out returning to Dubai some day.
“Not if I’m doing as well as I’m doing now, I wouldn’t,’’ McLaughlin said. ``But I wouldn’t totally rule it out because it’s a great lifestyle. It’s just that if I’m doing well I would probably just stay here and make my lifestyle great here also.’’