Ten years ago, there was no better Kentucky Derby loser than Kiaran McLaughlin.
The trainer watched in disbelief as his first Derby starter, Closing Argument, the longest shot in the field at odds of 71-1, seized the lead in the stretch only to be overtaken in the final yards by another long shot, 50-1 Giacomo.
Minutes after the close call, McLaughlin's brother and assistant, Neal, summed up the mood: ''We're the happiest second-place finishers you're ever going to find.''
Next weekend, McLaughlin sends out his sixth Derby starter in Frosted, believing his Wood Memorial winner has a solid shot at giving him his first Derby victory.
''It's going to be hard to get by them all,'' McLaughlin said this week during a conference call, ''but we hope we can.''
A full field of 20 3-year-olds is expected to be entered Wednesday, with trainer Bob Baffert set to send out the two favorites in unbeaten Dortmund and Arkansas Derby winner American Pharoah. Blue Grass winner Carpe Diem should be the next choice, with Frosted likely among the next wave of contenders.
''It might be the toughest Derby that we've had in quite a few years,'' the 55-year-old trainer from Lexington, Kentucky, said. ''I feel like 10 or 12 horses can certainly win. So many of them are just so talented. It seems like one of the most talented groups of 3-year-olds that I've seen.''
McLaughlin is just happy to have a horse in the race. Last year, he had a top contender in Cairo Prince before an injury sidelined the colt a few weeks before the Derby. This year, the former assistant for Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas started with four Derby prospects, but it was Frosted who delivered.
The gray son of Tapit came into the Wood at Aqueduct Racetrack on April 4 following an inexplicable fourth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park in February. A certain winner as the field turned for home, the colt faded badly in the stretch.
McLaughlin was baffled. So much so, he decided to change everything. He switched jockeys. He switched race tracks. He altered the colt's training regimen and tinkered with the blinkers. He had a medical procedure done to check for breathing problems.
''I thought, like everybody else in America watching the race, or around the world, that he was going to win easy,'' McLaughlin said of the Fountain of Youth, ''and when Irad (Ortiz, Jr.) threw the reins to ask him to go, he seemed to just put his head up and stop. We were quite frustrated, so we decided to just change everything that we could.''
Ortiz was replaced by Joel Rosario. McLaughlin called for the colt to train with other horses. No major breathing issues were found. Frosted was sent from Florida to New York for the Wood.
It all clicked at the Big A.
Frosted settled in well off the lead, moved his way up, overtook 21-1 long shot Tencendur in midstretch, and won by two lengths - just his second victory in seven career starts. The 100 Derby-qualifying points for the Wood win clinched Frosted's spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Now that Frosted is on his game, no other alterations are planned. However, the trainer joked, ''We would like to adjust the tough field, but we can't do that.''
McLaughlin, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, is among the sport's most popular and successful trainers. In 2006, he won the Dubai World Cup with Horse of the Year Invasor and the Belmont Stakes with Jazil, and also trained Eclipse Award winners Lahudood and Questing.
Frosted is owned by Godolphin Racing, the worldwide operation run by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. McLaughlin spent 10 years in Dubai working for Godolphin before returning to the U.S. and opening his own stable in 2003.
''You can't put a price on winning the Kentucky Derby,'' McLaughlin said. ''I would love to win it myself and I would love to win it for Godolphin.''
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