McLaughlin hopes patience pays off
ELMONT, N.Y. - For a little more than a decade now, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has dealt with having multiple sclerosis. Except for one thing, you might not notice that he's battling a disease. He's still got the same bawdy laugh, the same passion for training, and he's still a formidable opponent at poker. The only outward sign of the disease is that he drags his right leg when he's walking, something McLaughlin handles with self-effacing humor.
"My gait isn't so good," McLaughlin said at his Belmont Park barn. "I don't get out of a walk much. I'm not a marathon runner. I don't play tennis. I'm not a great mover, but I'm feeling fine."
McLaughlin is feeling particularly good this week. He believes he has a terrific chance to win the 141st Belmont Stakes on Saturday with Charitable Man, who should be a strong second choice to Mine That Bird. Should Charitable Man win, he will give McLaughlin a second victory in the Belmont; he won the race in 2006 with Jazil. A win also would be a satisfying coda to the first half of the year with Charitable Man, who McLaughlin and owner William Warren initially hoped would make the Kentucky Derby.
Mother Nature and the calendar conspired against them making the Derby, so they decided to wait and point for the Belmont.
"Hopefully we'll be smiling Saturday, knowing we did the right thing," McLaughlin said.
Charitable Man, a son of Lemon Drop Kid - who won the Belmont and Travers in 1999 - was one of the most exciting 2-year-old prospects in the country last year. Despite his lanky frame - "He stands over a lot of ground," McLaughlin said - and a pedigree that would suggest he would prefer longer distances, Charitable Man was dazzling in his sprint debut last summer at Saratoga, leading from start to finish in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race to win by 11 1/2 lengths.
He then came back five weeks later in the Futurity at Belmont Park and rallied to win, beating such promising youngsters as Flying Pegasus and Friesan Fire.
But Charitable Man subsequently suffered a cracked shin, known as a saucer fracture, in his left front leg. He was was out for the rest of the year, dashing any championship hopes. He had surgery, with a screw being inserted to aid healing. That screw was surgically removed earlier this year. He went to Ocala, Fla., for his initial training this year, then came into McLaughlin's barn. Time flew by, the pages of the calendar being whipped off like in a movie. By the time Charitable Man was ready to run, it was April.
"We tried to get him ready for the spring preps and the Kentucky Derby, but we didn't have enough time," McLaughlin said.
In a last-ditch effort to make the Derby, Charitable Man ran in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 11. But he could only finish seventh, clearly not as effective on Polytrack as he had been on dirt.
Because of his win in the Futurity last fall, Charitable Man had $150,000 in graded stakes earnings, enough, as it turned out, to make this year's Derby field.
"Being born and raised in Lexington, Ky., I've always dreamed of winning the Kentucky Derby," said McLaughlin, who finished second in the 2005 Derby with Closing Argument. "It's hard to pass up with a horse of this quality, especially when he has the earnings. We thought about it briefly. I felt that running him back in three weeks out of the Blue Grass was not the best thing to do going forward for the rest of the year, but that if we waited we could be rewarded in the Belmont and the Travers. Mr. Warren was kind enough and patient enough to wait for the Peter Pan."
A week after the Derby, Charitable Man ran here at Belmont Park in the Peter Pan Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile prep for the Belmont. He won it by 3 3/4 lengths, giving him a perfect 2-for-2 record at Belmont Park and a perfect 3-for-3 record on dirt tracks. The Belmont will be his first race beyond 1 1/8 miles.
"He's bred to do it," McLaughlin said. "He's a big, scopy-type of horse."
And he's part of a deep, powerful group of horses under McLaughlin's care. McLaughlin, backed by well-heeled clients from the United States and, in particular, Dubai, consistently has one of the strongest barns in the country. It has grown while he has quietly dealt with multiple sclerosis, which is a disease of the central nervous system whose symptoms include loss of muscle control and blurred vision.
McLaughlin, 48, was diagnosed in 1998, but it wasn't until a year later that he started getting a better handle on the disease by giving himself a daily injection of Copaxone.
"I can't complain," he said. "It's been a good 10 years in more than one way."
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