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Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin may have best Derby chance yet with unbeaten Mohaymen

By Liane Crossley
KyForward correspondent

(This story has been updated since it was originally posted on March 21, 2014)

Kiaran McLaughlin clearly recalls when he became entranced with racehorses while watching television with his father in their Lexington home.
McLaughlin was 12 on that June afternoon in 1973 when the mighty Secretariat transcended sports and became legendary with his breathtaking Belmont Stakes triumph that clinched the Triple Crown.

Ask Thoroughbred enthusiasts of a certain age how they became interested in the game and they often will answer that the charming and powerful racer dubbed Big Red captivated them.
Most youngsters of the era relied on newspapers, trade publications and occasional television coverage to follow horse racing, but McLaughlin had the real deal. His friend Greg Burchell’s father was entrenched in the racing world primarily as a trainer. McLaughlin soon was joining the Burchells in various Thoroughbred activities such as the Keeneland auctions and races.

Kiaran McLaughlin (NYRA Photo)

Kiaran McLaughlin (NYRA Photo)

“I hardly missed a day of going to the races at Keeneland from the time I was 13 until I left Lexington when I was 19,” McLaughlin said. “I went every day that I could, even if it meant going for just the last few races when I was in school.”

After graduating from Lafayette High School in 1978, McLaughlin tried college but the lure of the track was too strong. He received his education in the barns as he worked his way up from stable hand and foreman positions before launching his own career in 1993. He has trained a long list of world-class racers including Hall of Fame member Invasor.

He has yet to win the Kentucky Derby, but his chances are outstanding this season with undefeated Mohaymen. The gray colt faces his toughest task to date on April 2 in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park where he will meet unbeaten superstar Nyquist, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Keeneland last year.

Mohaymen made headlines before his racing career began when he tied for co-highest priced yearling at $2.2-million during the 2014 Keeneland September sale. He was purchased by the Lexington-based Shadwell Estate Company of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum.

McLaughlin is no stranger to the Run for the Roses with six starters to his credit including last year’s fourth-place finisher Frosted and a narrow defeat with 70-1 longshot Closing Argument in 2005. McLaughlin was overcome with conflicting emotions as Closing Argument led in the stretch before being overtaken in the final yards by fellow longshot Giacomo.

Kiaran McLaughlin at the Kentucky Derby
Record: 6-0-1-0
Year Horse Finish
2005 Closing Argument 2nd
2006 Jazil Flashy Bull 4th
Flashy Bull 14th
2011 Soldat 11th
2012 Alpha 12th
2015 Frosted 4th

“I was watching with my son and I thought for sure he was going to win,” McLaughlin said. “It was a wild feeling. He ran great to be second at 70-1. You have all kinds of feelings — happy that the horse ran so well, but it hits you hard to get that close.”

Family matters
Through his years of training their Thoroughbreds, McLaughlin has a long and close association with Sheikh Hamdan and his brother Sheikh Mohammed, whose American breeding operation is Darley farm in Lexington.

“I lived in Dubai for almost 10 years and I feel like I am almost part of the [Maktoum] family,” McLaughlin said. “It would be an incredible dream come true to win the Derby for any member of the Maktoum family.”

The association with the Maktoums began in 1993 when McLaughlin began training their racehorses. The job allowed him to spend winters in Dubai and the remainder of the year primarily in New York. His original hires included his youngest brother Neal. More than two decades later, he remains a key component of the McLaughlin operation.

“I am very lucky to have Neal and his wife Trish working for me,” he said. “We are a really tight family.”

Another key member of McLaughlin’s team is his wife, Letty. The couple was married in 1983 and worked at the barn together before Letty shifted her focus to raising their two children. Their daughter Erin works in the Lexington office of Breeders’ Cup Ltd. and their son Ryan is a college senior leaning toward a career in finance.

The McLaughlins typically gather together on big race days as they did when Closing Argument nearly pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Run for the Roses.

“It makes you want to go back and win it,” he said.

Liane Crossley is a freelance writer based in Lexington.

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