LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Kiaran McLaughlin was asked what it takes to win the Kentucky Derby. “I haven’t won it, so I haven’t figured it out yet,’’ he said with a smile in front of his barn at Churchill Downs. “But this is my best chance.’’
His compact gray colt Mohaymen was 5-for-5 and No. 1 on many Derby lists before turning in a dud. He ran fourth in the Florida Derby on April 2 behind Nyquist, who immediately became the undisputed Derby favorite as Mohaymen’s fans trampled each other jumping off his bandwagon. Loyalty lasts only as long as you keep finishing first.
So instead of being mobbed by the media this week, McLaughlin is part of the supporting cast. The lack of buzz is fine with him provided he’s in the spotlight Sunday, when the winning trainer basks in the glorious morning-after glow.
“I understand,’’ he said. “Had we won the Florida Derby, people would be lined up at our barn instead of Doug O’Neill’s.’’
McLaughlin, a longtime Garden City resident, is confident Mohaymen will bounce back from his Gulfstream flop, in which he was hung wide throughout on a sloppy surface he may not have liked. He had to run 54 feet farther than Nyquist, and Mohaymen wasn’t himself amid heat and humidity that felt like July. McLaughlin said many people told him he “looked half asleep in the starting gate.’’
“It’s taken a lot of time to get over it, but I’m not one who looks back,’’ he said. “We’re going to draw a line through the effort and say, ‘We’re better off now than we were then.’ Even though he didn’t run terrible, fourth was disappointing for us who didn’t think he could lose.
“But Nyquist beat us fair and square and he had to run over the same track. He’s the one to beat Saturday and should be the favorite. We hope to turn the tables.’’
Last year McLaughlin was high on another gray colt, Frosted, who closed well for fourth in the Derby but was too far behind a moderate pace to catch American Pharoah. The best Frosted could do in the Triple Crown was a distant second in the Belmont.
McLaughlin, 55, is 0-for-6 in the Derby, one of the few major races he hasn’t won and the one, like everyone else, he wants most. Born and raised in Lexington, epicenter of Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country, he decided at age 12 to become a thoroughbred trainer. He’s excelled at the top of the game despite battling multiple sclerosis since 1998. He has a pronounced limp but never complains and is always affable and accessible. “I don’t walk great,’’ he said, “but I’m still living my dream.’’
He’s a very easy guy to root for, and if he won Saturday it would resonate powerfully.
“It’s hard to say just what a Derby win would mean,’’ McLaughlin said. “I’d love to win it for Sheikh Hamdan [Bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai]. He’s a great man and I’ve trained for him for 23 years.’’
McLaughlin will have a large cheering section at Churchill — his wife, Letty, their children, Erin and Ryan, along with his mother, four brothers and two sisters. The McLaughlin barn is a family operation, with his brother and assistant trainer Neal handling much of the heavy lifting. Neal’s wife, Trish, also works for Team McLaughlin.
“I hope Mohaymen will sit fourth to eighth and get a clean trip,’’ McLaughlin said. “I think he’ll rebound. He’s had two bad minutes in his whole life. He’s a special colt and he’s training fabulous.
“I love our chances, and I’ll be betting on him.’’