Trainer McLaughlin has two favorites for Parx big day

Posted: September 20, 2012

KIARAN McLAUGHLIN'S stable was winning its share in 2012, but the major races were elusive. Then, Saratoga, American horse racing's marquee meeting, happened. The trainer won four Grade I races with three horses. Two of those horses, Questing and Alpha, will be on display Saturday when Parx Racing hosts America's first multiple $1 million stakes day not held in conjunction with the Breeders' Cup.

"You have to remember it and cherish it," McLaughlin said. "This has been unbelievable."

Questing will be the favorite in the $1 million Cotillion, where she will face undefeated 2-year-old filly champion My Miss Aurelia in a virtual match race. Alpha will be favored in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby, where he faces Golden Ticket (the horse he finished in a dead heat with in the Travers) and six others.

The trainer was ready to give up on Questing in late June and send her back to England. She had been in America for three races, one on dirt and two on grass. None of the efforts was inspiring.

McLaughlin decided to try her one more time on dirt before sending her home. Questing won that race by nearly 4 lengths and ran really fast. The trainer was so impressed, he immediately put her in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks. She won by more than 4 lengths and ran fast again. He put her in the Grade I Alabama Stakes and she ran out of the TV set, winning by 9 lengths.

"Had she not run well on the dirt at Belmont, we probably would have sent her home to be bred," McLaughlin said. "I didn't know what else to do but try her back on the dirt."

The trainer was as surprised as anybody by the result. But he knew what it meant. She could compete with the best. Now, she is the best. You could make a strong case that Questing is the best 3-year-old in training of either sex. The trainer does not disagree, but he also understands horse-racing reality.

"Going into this race, you don't know if she is going to continue to do that," he said. "It's back to a mile and a sixteenth on a different track."

You could also make a good case that McLaughlin trains the best 3-year-old filly and 3-year-old colt still remaining during this year of 3-year-old attrition.

Alpha was second to Union Rags in last year's Champagne Stakes. He won the Count Fleet and Withers this winter before running second in the Wood Memorial. He won the Jim Dandy Stakes before winning the Travers.

"He got sick before the Belmont, which was a blessing in disguise," McLaughlin said. "He shipped up to Saratoga, put on weight and has been fabulous since then. He's maybe benefited by the horses that are no longer racing."

McLaughlin graduated from the D. Wayne Lukas Training School that has produced so many successful horsemen, including Todd Pletcher, the man who annually leads all trainers in purses won.

McLaughlin has won more than 1,000 races and his horses have earned $70 million. In 2006, he oversaw a Horse of the Year season from Invasor, which culminated with a win in the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race the horse won after a 3-month layoff.

Lukas' organization revolutionized the sport in the 1980s. And McLaughlin learned it all.

Mark Reid, the former top trainer at Parx, watched and admired the Lukas operation. He is not the least bit surprised his friend McLaughlin has made it big.

"He learned from a guy who was a master at organization and setting a whole program up," Reid said. "And he's a good, natural horseman . . . There's two ways to do this. You stand there 24/7, you feed every horse or you have a program set up [where you delegate]."

Reid did well, but was exhausted until he hired John Servis to be his assistant. Then, the operation did not miss any of the little stuff.

"You have to understand you are dealing with livestock, so they are covered from start to finish," Reid said. "It takes so much time and effort that it will exhaust a person. Lukas was the absolute best of having everything in order."

Last year's Cotillion winner, Plum Pretty, was born on Reid's farm in Chester County. He managed the 2005 Horse of the Year campaign of Saint Liam. So, he knows what a good horse looks like and what kind of trainer can get the best out of that horse.

"He's a sophisticated trainer," Reid said of McLaughlin. "He uses speed figures."

It clearly helps McLaughlin that he trains horses for Dubai's royal family. It is one thing to get horses with great pedigree, quite another to get them to win major races. McLaughlin has raced horses at Parx through the years, but is quite amazed to see the track put on a pair of $1 million races.

"But we're happy to be involved in both of them and with good chances," he said. "It's a great day of racing."

He is having one of his greatest years despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis several years ago.

"I'm doing very well," he said. "I just don't move around great. I walk with a limp. You wouldn't buy me as a yearling on my walk."

McLaughlin was just in Kentucky for a week at the Keeneland fall sales. Then, he flew home to Kennedy Airport, drove with his wife to Saratoga to watch all the good horses work last weekend at a private training facility right near the track. He is now at Belmont Park with his stable. Saturday, Kiaran McLaughlin will be at Parx Racing to see two of his big horses run. Nobody should be surprised if he greets both in the winner's circle.

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