What does it take to get a horse to the Kentucky Derby? To find out, ESPN.com is tracking a top 3-year-old -- 2001 Remsen Stakes winner Saarland -- for as long as he is a viable candidate for Derby 128. Trainer Shug McGaughey has granted writer Jeremy Plonk daily access to his barn to construct a detailed diary of Saarland's journey on the Road to the Roses, recording his activities as well as those of the people that care for him. Here is how the Cynthia Phipps-owned sophomore spent the sixth week of 2002.
Tuesday, Feb. 5
Oh, what a week. When we last checked in, Gulfstream Park's racing surface was the talk of the racing world: too deep, too loose, a literal mess. Saarland opens the sixth week of his 2002 season shrouded in questions. The banter around the barn is that he won't race over this South Florida beach of a track. One day after a stout half-mile workout, the big horse in Barn 14 goes right back to the track for a one-mile gallop. Trainer Shug McGaughey is away for the morning, finishing a few rounds of golf at Augusta. He puts his star 3-year-old back on the track, however. No rest for Saarland today, nor the track crew. After training hours, Gulfstream management addresses the racetrack problem, scraping away much of the loose dirt and adding clay to what dirt remains for a firmer base. It's a welcome sight for trainers and the horses that have been sinking deeply into the track all winter.
Wednesday, Feb. 6
Saarland high-steps onto the track at his customary 6:40 a.m. time slot, one of the first horses to test the revamped racetrack. With McGaughey back railside, the colt gallops 1 ½ miles under Juice Krajewski without a hiccup. "The track looks fine," McGaughey says. "I never had a problem with it before, nor did our horses. It was deep, but it was for everyone. Mainly, it was safe. The times are getting faster (on the new track surface). I just hope they keep up with it and it stays safe like it has been." Leading Kentucky Derby contender Repent smokes five furlongs over the newly tooled Gulfstream Park racing surface in :58 this morning. That's about three seconds (15 lengths) faster than a solid work on the former deep track. The times, they are a changin'.
Thursday, Feb. 7
With his eighth major workout since arriving in Florida still two days away, Saarland continues to develop his fitness with another 1 ½ mile gallop this morning. "He's coming along very well," McGaughey says of his Derby hopeful. "I'm pleased where he is right now. We just need to keep training. The goal is the Wood Memorial (April 13 in New York) and I would love to have two races in him by then. There's no substitute for (racing) experience, but I'm not going to kill him to just get him to the Derby."
Friday, Feb. 8
For a fourth straight morning, Saarland completes his morning exercise with a strong gallop, today at 1 ½ miles. The tighter track may give McGaughey reason to rethink the colt's schedule and once again aim for next Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes. Then again, it may not. "I'll know a lot more after tomorrow," he says, citing a scheduled five-furlong workout as a key determinant. The trainer looks forward to a huge Saturday, where Saarland's morning drill will be followed by two key races for the stable. In New York, Derby hopeful D'Coach contests the Whirlaway Stakes, while the Florida contingent will focus on the 5-year-old Traditionally's bid in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream. McGaughey says that D'Coach will van to Florida after this weekend's race to join the forces in Barn 14.
Saturday, Feb. 9
The busiest day for Team McGaughey in 2002 starts out with a fizzle and then a bang. Saarland is set to drill five furlongs from the starting gate this morning, working in company with stablemate Jackpot, a 4-year-old maiden who has been long viewed as a major talent in the barn, but has battled injuries. At 7:20, the track opens workouts from the starting gate. Accompanied by assistant trainer Robbie Medina to the gate, Saarland and Jackpot get set for serious competition. When the gate opens, Jackpot stumbles to his knees, exercise rider Pam York does her best to snatch the colt from hitting the ground and falls off in the process. Juice Krajewski, aboard Saarland, sets his colt into the workout as Jackpot trucks alongside riderless. They'll go in tandem together until the far turn, where a healthy Jackpot checks out and meanders loose up the chute. Saarland gets set down for the drive and stops the clock in 1:02 flat. The workout is labeled by McGaughey the "best of the winter." The new track surface appears to agree much better with the long, tall horse. "Shug's very laid back," says Medina, his seventh year assistant. "He never, I mean never, says after a workout that a horse worked unbelievable or that they are a freak. After Saarland's workout on Saturday, Shug said to me simply, 'He's back'. That tells me something."
In New York, D'Coach drops far behind in the Whirlaway Stakes and then makes his patented freight-train rally to finish second to the unbeaten Maryland invader Saratoga Blues. The winner goes wire-to-wire, while D'Coach chugs hard to no avail, along the way lugging in to bump a rival and is subsequently disqualified and placed third. It's a big effort, and D'Coach proves that he belongs on the Triple Crown trail. He just needs to learn a few more things along the way.
Traditionally breaks from post position 14 in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap and offers little threat. Under Pat Day, he fails to light the board and rekindle the talent he showed in winning the Grade 1 Oaklawn Handicap last spring. While the day ends on a down note, Saarland's sensational workout this morning has picked up the spirits of the team.
Sunday, Feb. 10
Saarland enjoys a well-deserved day off today. He exits stall 55 for a 45-minute walk under the shedrow, handled by hotwalker Christian San Martin. Groom Gilberto Torres takes care of the Derby hopeful back in his stall. Saarland bounces back from his workout in fine order. The barn reports the colt is not nearly as tired as he was in previous workouts over the deeper track.
Monday, Feb. 11
After a one-mile gallop this morning on a tad-wet racetrack, Saarland is fitted for new shoes back in the barn. Ferrier Bruce Scott returns for his scheduled monthly servicing of the colt's footwear. No changes in style, Saarland gets a fresh set of aluminum plates. The question now will be, does he get to show off those new kicks this Saturday in the Fountain of Youth, or in a seven-furlong allowance race scheduled for the following Saturday, Feb. 23? Meanwhile, D'Coach is slated to leave New York tomorrow and arrive in Florida Wednesday. The three-pronged attack of Saarland, Maybry's Boy and D'Coach will be together again. And talented maiden Randy's Bullet could make his Florida unveiling in the next week. He's another big horse that bears watching. Things are truly heating up in South Florida.
The 'Buzz' in New York
Shug McGaughey and his right-hand man, Buzz Tenney, have been through it all together. Elementary school, cub scouts, junior high and college. They went to different high schools, Shug to Lexington, KY's Tates Creek High and Tenney to Henry Clay. There, they were rivals on the schools' golf teams. The longtime friends also hung out together at Ole Miss back in the early 1970s, rooting on upperclassman Archie Manning and the Rebels football team. Shug left early for training horses, Buzz hung around Oxford to finish schooling.
For the past 17 years, Buzz has called Shug "boss". As his chief assistant, Tenney works alongside Team McGaughey during the spring, summer and fall. In the winter, he handles the stable's 10 horses in New York while McGaughey and crew head for the Florida racing season with the bulk of the runners.
"It works out great for me; I have a wife and two young boys who we can keep in the same school system," says Tenney, proud father of ninth-grader Matthew and seventh-grader Robert. "It's a completely different job between winter and the rest of the year. I really look forward to the winter time, to tell you the truth. There are fewer horses around and I get more responsibility. It also gives me time to see the boys' basketball games and do things with the family."
This past Saturday, it was all work for Tenney, who saddled D'Coach in the Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct. The colt will now van to Florida to rejoin the first string at Gulfstream Park. No doubt, McGaughey knows that Tenney will deliver a more seasoned and impressive colt than they left behind in late November.
"We've known eachother for a long time," McGaughey says. "Buzz is good around the barn and very good with the help. He's polished and can talk with people as need be. When you work for the Phipps', being polished is important."
As for that old golf rivalry, the good-natured Tenney says, "I'd make more money playing golf against Shug everyday then I do working for him."