Peter Beagle wrote in The Last Unicorn, “Great heroes need great sorrow and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.”
Kiaran McLaughlin has always been a hero to his daughter Erin for his hard work and dedication to the sport that has encompassed his entire life. But it took the “great sorrow and burden” of Multiple Sclerosis for the rest of the world to notice McLaughlin’s heroism. And now all that is left is the fairy tale.
And that fairy tale could be written this year when McLaughlin saddles Godolphin Racing’s Wood Memorial winner Frosted in the Kentucky Derby. Last year, the McLaughlin family’s fairy tale ended early when they lost their leading contender Cairo Prince to injury. This year, McLaughlin’s one-time four-horse Derby arsenal looked as if it would fire nothing but blanks, with Ocean Knight, Imperia, and Classy Class all falling off the Derby trail, and Frosted turning in one of the most baffling performances seen in a long time when he let sure victory slip away in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, finishing an ignominious fourth.
But McLaughlin has since toyed and tinkered with the colt, using all his skills as a horseman, in an attempt to unlock the mystery of the Fountain of Youth. He had only one shot at it in the Wood Memorial, and wound up unveiling the horse everyone in the barn thought he was from the day he arrived.
And now McLaughlin has a chance to finish the fairy tale, 10 years after his very first Kentucky Derby starter, Closing Argument, finished second at odds of 71-1, beaten by 50-1 shot Giacomo.
While the excitement is starting to build for Erin, she doesn’t need a Kentucky Derby victory for her dad to be her hero. He attained that status a long time ago. But she wants it so badly for him and for Sheikh Mohammed.
“My dad is my hero, regardless of whether he had MS,” Erin said. “I think every girl’s dad is their hero at some point in their life, and he’s always been a role model for me, just for his work ethics. He’s always been hard working and provided for us. He’s also very honest, and that’s something I’ve always admired about him.
“Adding to that the fact that he has Multiple Sclerosis is so inspiring. He just deals with it in such a positive way and wants to influence other people who have been recently diagnosed with it, always wanting to be positive. He’s had every reason to be negative and feel bad for himself and he’s never felt that way and that’s what inspires me when I’m having a rough day, knowing that it’s nothing compared to what he’s going through. Hopefully his story inspires others that they can still continue to achieve their goals, even if they have setbacks.”
After he was diagnosed, McLaughlin went into a state of depression and spent entire days just laying on his couch, unable to cope with the devastating news and the uncertainty of his and his family’s future. Getting up early every morning his entire life and going to the barn and working with the horses required great physical and mental fortitude, and it was extremely tough for someone in that world to suddenly find out his once strong body had deserted him and that his future as a hands-on trainer was in jeopardy.
But his family (his wife Letty, son Ryan, and Erin) and his close-knit crew, including longtime assistants Artie Magnuson, his brother Neal and Neal’s wife Trish, all rallied around him, and McLaughlin was able to turn his depression into determination to battle through his illness.
McLaughlin had trained for several years in Dubai for Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell Stable before returning to the States, and now trying to form a public stable, there was great uncertainty as to what direction they were going, especially with McLaughlin having to battle his MS. But he kept hustling and eventually began lining up new clients, while continuing to train some Shadwell horses.
It was 2003 and McLaughlin was officially on his own with a public stable, while still training several horses for Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan.
In the winter of 2005, a van pulled up to McLaughlin’s barn at Palm Meadows training center and out walked a light-framed, nondescript-looking colt from Uruguay with a thick winter coat, who made absolutely no impression on anyone. Their only thought was just trying to figure out what kind of allowance conditions they could find for him. They could not believe this horse was the hero of Uruguay, sweeping the Triple Crown with devastating ease before being sold to Sheikh Hamdan.
That colt was named Invasor, and he would go on to win six consecutive grade I stakes, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup and be named Horse of the Year in 2006, eventually being elected into the Hall of Fame. That same year, McLaughlin won the Belmont Stakes with Shadwell’s diminutive colt Jazil.
McLaughlin had persevered through his adversity and built his stable into one of the most successful in the country.
The year before, he nearly pulled off the greatest Kentucky Derby upset since Donerail in 1913 when Closing Argument was beaten a half-length in the final jumps.
Erin McLaughlin, now 24, was 14 at the time and was witnessing her first Kentucky Derby.
“I couldn’t believe that one,” she said. “It was so close and he was such a big longshot. My mom and I didn’t think we had any chance. When someone said, ‘He’s moving up; you guys are looking good,’ I went, ‘No that can’t be us, we have no chance.’ We were so shocked and so excited to be second and to come so close. It shows you anything can happen once you get in that starting gate. Every horse has a chance even if you don’t think they do.”
The fairy tale script was right there in their grasp, but what could have been one of the biggest surprised endings in Derby history was spoiled in the final paragraph.
“Even though we lost, that’s why I love the Derby, because of the backgrounds of all the people behind the scenes who have these touching stories that get out there to the public,” Erin said.
Erin vaguely remembers the ordeal her father had to endure after being diagnosed with MS, but over the years has come to admire his determination in conquering his affliction, despite the early anguish that accompanied it and the debilitating effect it had on his body and his mind.
“I was only 7 years old at the time and I really don’t remember it that well,” she said. “I do remember bringing him a present in the hospital, but I didn’t really understand what was going on. Another thing I remember was Rick Nichols (Shadwell’s vice president and general manager) coming to visit for Halloween around the time my dad was diagnosed and was going through his depression. Rick let me go trick or treating in his limousine and I thought that was the coolest thing. That was my one memory of that time.
“He’s had his ups and downs and I feel he’s doing well now and has been very fortunate in that he hasn’t had any major setbacks. I feel he’s been lucky because a lot of people with it are worse off. He does exercise and sometimes he has to use a cane. It doesn’t really hurt him, because that side of his body is numb and he drags his foot.”
Now, 10 years after his first Kentucky Derby and nine years after his amazing year with Invasor and Jazil (who finished in a dead-heat for fourth in the Kentucky Derby), McLaughlin has a big chance to get that first Derby victory with the handsome Frosted.
“He’s so beautiful,” Erin said. “Even if he wasn’t a good horse I think he’s the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen. He’s just stunning, and I feel as if he knows it. We just have to knock on wood over the next 12 days. I see One Lucky Dane got hurt and is out. I feel badly for anybody who loses a Derby horse, especially after what we went through last year with Cairo Prince.
“I hate to get too excited, but so far everything has gone smoothly. I can’t even imagine what Todd (Pletcher) felt like losing Uncle Mo the day before the Derby. There is so much stress, and people outside the game don’t know that. We love these horses; they’re part of the family and people don’t always understand that. That’s why it is such an honor just to get in the starting gate.”
Unlike some children of trainers who follow in their father’s footsteps, Erin is content to be part of the team from a distance, but she still loves being involved in the sport and currently works for the Breeders’ Cup in Lexington, Ky.
“I’ve always been into it behind the scenes,” she said. “I don’t ride and I’m not very hands-on with the horses. My dad always enjoyed the fact that I was into it, because it became a common bond we had, whereas my younger brother growing up wasn’t really that into it. He’s gotten more and more into it now that he’s gotten older, and I think that was the case with me, too. Most of my best friends are all racetrack people through the game.”
Over the years we have seen the powers of the Derby gods, as they guided Mrs. Frances Genter, Paul Mellon and Mack Miller, Cal Partee, Charlie Whittingham and Bill Shoemaker, Meadow Stable, Art Sherman, Shug McGaughey and the Phipps and Janney families, Arthur Hancock, and Cinderella stories like the Chapmans, Sakatoga Stable, and Chip Woolley to victory.
If the Derby gods are carefully studying the horses this year and are looking for another worthy recipient of their powers, that some call fate, then they should give an extra close look at the popular and always straightforward Kiaran McLaughlin and his struggle to get here, not to mention all the work he has put into Frosted, putting blinkers on, then adjusting his blinkers, switching jockeys and teaching him to sit behind horses in his works, and having a minor surgical procedure performed to free his airways.
The 54-year-old McLaughlin, born, raised, and educated in Kentucky, has dreamed of winning the Kentucky Derby since he was 10 years old.
“Even though I would be so excited to win the Derby, I just want him to win, because I know what a dream it is for him,” Erin said. “And he deserves to have that someday. Maybe this year or somewhere down the line. I can’t even imagine how excited he would be; he would just die.”
Since purchasing Worldly Manner privately in the fall of 1998 and running him in the ’99 Kentucky Derby, Sheikh Mohammed has spent millions upon millions of dollars trying to win the Derby, with no success. It seems inevitable that Godolphin and McLaughlin, who has had the support of both Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan for so many years, through all the ups and downs, would one day travel that hallowed path to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle together.
“One of the reasons why my dad took Cairo Prince’s injury so hard last year was because Godolphin had bought into the horse and he just felt terrible about what happened,” Erin said. “So I know if he were to win it for anyone, he’d want it to be for them. Sheikh Mohammed can buy anything in the world he wants, but this is something he can’t buy. And my dad feels Sheikh Mohammed has given all of us so much in our lifetime, and to give it back to him with a Kentucky Derby victory would be a dream come true.”
McLaughlin in his younger days with Hall of Fame filly Lady's Secret. - Photo by Steve Haskin