Saarland's Road to the Roses: Week 14

The 14th week of the 2002 racing season will be Saarland's last to dream of the Kentucky Derby. Next week, the proof will have to be in the pudding.

Updated: April 10, 2002, 2:57 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

The 14th week of the 2002 racing season will be Saarland's last to dream of the Kentucky Derby. Next week, the proof will have to be in the pudding. Trainer Shug McGaughey needs to have his Triple Crown hopeful primed for the April 13 Wood Memorial. A big race there, and they're off to the roses. A few missteps, and they shuffle off the trail. Judgment day nears.

Tuesday, April 2
Saarland's second of three major workouts between the Gotham and Wood Memorial takes place this morning. Belmont Park opens its main track for the first time in 2002, and Saarland's steps are among the first to grace "Big Sandy", as the famed track is nicknamed. The off-season training track days at Belmont are over. Under exercise rider Juice Krajewski, Saarland rips through his six-furlong drill with vigor. The opening three furlongs pass in :37-1/5, five furlongs in 1:00-4/5 and a complete three-quarter mile drill in 1:13-1/5.

"Very seldom does it work out where you get exactly what you want, today it pretty much did," Shug McGaughey says. "I told Juice I wanted him to go in 1:13. He almost nailed it. It was definitely a good work."

The six-furlong workout is the longest of the season for Saarland. He has strung together more than a dozen four- and five-furlong drills over the past three months.

"I thought a slow three-quarters would tighten him up a bit," the veteran trainer says. "We'll throw some speed into him with his final Wood work on Monday."

Wednesday, April 3
Ten days remain until the Wood Memorial. Saarland gets an easy day around Barn 19 this morning, walking 30 minutes by hand inside the shedrow. McGaughey says his star colt came out of Tuesday's workout without a hitch. The switch to the Belmont main track served Saarland fine, as he trained all of 2001 over it before heading to Florida for the winter.

Tactically speaking, McGaughey says that Saarland may show more speed in the Wood Memorial than folks are accustomed to seeing from the Derby hopeful. Will he be closer to the early pace? "Probably so, since he's been training so aggressively, " McGaughey says. "He looks like he's putting it all together now."

Thursday, April 4
Saarland returns to the track this morning for a one-mile gallop under Krajewski. McGaughey says that his colt is taking to the track very well. "They call it ëBig Sandy'," McGaughey says, "but it only gets real sandy when it's dry. With the rain we've had and the way they've been watering the track, it's in great shape. The main track does not have as hard of a bottom to it as the training track."

Friday, April 5
Saarland bounces over the Belmont Park main track this morning with a return to his full 1-1/2 mile gallop distance. The McGaughey stable has now hit full stride with 36 horses housed at Belmont Park. The Florida season has closed for them, and the focus now turns to the New York campaign as well as the Triple Crown trail.

The weekend promises to shed much light on Saarland's potential Derby foes. In California, Gotham nemesis Mayakovsky gets his distance test against Came Home in the Santa Anita Derby. In Chicago, leading Midwest hopeful Repent seeks to go 3-for-3 on the year in the Illinois Derby. And on Sunday at The Curragh in Ireland, Breeders' Cup Juvenile conquerer Johannesburg makes his sophomore debut in the Gladness Stakes.

"I'll watch the Santa Anita Derby and see what Mayakovsky does," McGaughey says. "I would have liked to see him here in our race (Wood Memorial)Öfor the pace to run at. I would watch the big Derby preps even if we didn't have a horse in the mix. I'm just a racing fan. It's not like anything I see will play effect into anything we do with our horse. It's just a chance to watch. I'm interested to see how Repent runs in Illinois."

Saturday, April 6
One week before the Wood and all is well inside Barn 19. Saarland continues to build his stamina with a 1-1/2 mile gallop this morning before retiring to his stall. Like many, he's kicked back and awaiting the Santa Anita Derby and Illinois Derby telecasts.

In Illinois, heavily favored Repent ­ a top three Derby hopeful on most lists ­ struggles to catch front-running War Emblem. The six-length loss will no doubt sour some on his Kentucky credentials.

"Repent made a few mistakes again," McGaughey says. "That track is not what he wants though, speed-wise, so you have to give him credit for that."

Out west, Came Home bulldogs his way to a slow, but sure victory in the Santa Anita Derby.

"Came Home ­ he's a scapper," McGaughey comments. "He's somebody you'll have to deal with in Kentucky; it's just a matter of how far he can go. You'll have to pass him in the stretch to win it."

Came Home's time of 1:50 is the 11th slowest in the 65-year history of the race. The time will give detractors ammunition about his suspect pedigree. Some thought hell would freeze over before Came Home even won a mile-and-one-eighth race.

Sunday, April 7
Belmont is frozen over. Literally. Maybe the racing gods were right about Came Home? Seriously, Belmont Park's training and main tracks are both frozen this frigid morning. Can this really be April 7? The big chill causes McGaughey and others to change plans. Saarland walks for an hour under tack this morning, with Juice Krajewski in the saddle. With his final major Wood Memorial workout set for tomorrow, the day from the track won't provide much of a detriment.

Tell Beelzebub to throw another log on the fire -- it's getting colder in his neck of the woods. In Ireland, leading Kentucky Derby contender Johannesburg loses for the first time in nine career starts when beaten by a mare in the Gladness Stakes. It's looking more and more like Saarland could land the Kentucky Derby favorite's role with a Wood Memorial victory.

Do the crumbling reputations for leading Derby hopefuls give the McGaughey barn more confidence in their chances come the first Saturday in May?

"I think it does," McGaughey admits. "Came Home didn't run in 1:47 and win by 10 lengths. Johannesburg and Repent each got beat. And, nothing back here (east coast) has jumped out. The Fountain of Youth (Booklet) winner got beat in the Florida Derby (by Harlan's Holiday). They're taking turns beating eachother. The Florida Derby winner did look good, but the race kind of fell apart in front of him."

Monday, April 8
This is it. Saarland's final tune-up for the Wood Memorial comes on a cloudy, chilly Long Island morning. Under Juice Krajewski, Saarland sets sail on a half-mile breeze where he passes the opening three furlongs in :35-4/5. He finishes strong with a final furlong in :12-1/5, for a time of :48 flat. McGaughey catches him galloping out to five furlongs in an even one minute. Krajewski sits chilly through the drill, never asking the big horse for another gear. It looks like McGaughey got that speed into Saarland he had hoped for earlier in the week.

"He finished up great," the trainer says candidly. "I'm excited. Everything's going great. That usually doesn't happen in this game. It's still a project in progress. The ultimate goal is still a few weeks away in Kentucky. I'm thrilled where we're at right now."

Saarland will get Tuesday off before galloping each morning prior to Saturday's big dance. McGaughey says they will van the colt to Aqueduct either Wednesday or Thursday to "school" in the paddock, making their final dress rehearsal of sorts.

THIS WEEK'S EXTRA: WOOD MEMORIAL PREVIEW
The past two Kentucky Derby winners, Fusaichi Pegasus and Monarchos, each turned in their final prep races in the Wood Memorial. Many think the upcoming Wood could produce its third straight classic winner with a talented cast expected to compete.

Saarland seeks to put his Derby credentials to the forefront against a field that includes competitors from no less than three Hall of Fame barns. San Felipe Stakes winner Medaglia D'oro, who hails from the hottest barn in memory -- Bobby Frankel -- poses a major threat. Neil Drysdale's Sunday Break makes his stakes debut after three wins in California and New York have propelled him to the top of many watch lists. Also, the seasoned Blue Burner heads north for Bill Mott after a 2nd-place finish in the Florida Derby and 3rd-place run in the Fountain of Youth.

A field of six or seven 3-year-olds is expected to contest the Wood Memorial. Pace will be critical in the smallish field, and Frankel's Medaglia D'oro should benefit on the front end under Laffit Pincay -- the leading jockey in the history of North American racing. Fellow Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day could place the upstart colt Buddha right on the leader's tail. Trained by H. James Bond, Buddha has won both starts this year and most recently ran off by 9-1/2 lengths in a Florida Derby day undercard allowance race. How good is he? Hard to say, but Day has opted to ride him in New York and bypass potential Blue Grass Stakes mounts on both Request For Parole and Bob's Image -- that should say something.

Saarland's old Remsen Stakes pal from last fall, Todd Pletcher's Nokoma, also is expected to contest the Wood. Last year, Saarland wore down Nokoma going 1-1/8 miles, the same distance they'll have to navigate in perhaps the season's toughest Kentucky Derby prep.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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