by Dan Lauletta
Shug McGaughey last ran a horse in the Kentucky Derby 13 years ago, when his favored entry of Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring finished second and third behind Sunday Silence. Easy Goer, of course, was the strength of the entry and the star of the stable. By year's end, he would win the Belmont Stakes, Whitney, Travers, Woodward, and Jockey Club Gold Cup. But McGaughey, who also participated in the 1984 and 1988 Kentucky Derbies, figured other classic runners would come.
"I thought there would be other chances along the way," McGaughey said April 11. "I'm disappointed there haven't been, but I'm glad to be back in the ballgame. I hope I can still say that on Sunday."
Sunday is the day after the Wood Memorial, and McGaughey will be represented by his latest prize 3-year old, Saarland. A satisfactory effort will earn Saarland a trip to the Kentucky Derby on May 4.
"I hope we win, but we don't have to win," the veteran trainer said of the April 13 Wood. "As I've been saying, it's sort of a project still in progress. I'm not looking for his best race to be Saturday. I'd like it to be three weeks from Saturday. It's not a win-all situation."
Saarland has been one of the exemptions to the criticism in a year when many of the top classic contenders are carrying suspect pedigrees. Saarland's sire, Unbridled, won the 1990 Kentucky Derby, and his dam, Versailles Treaty, was also a grade I winner at a mile and a quarter.
Instead, Saarland has had to answer the question of speed, something he had so little of last year that his jockey, John Velazquez, had to keep after him just to remain in contact with the field during the Remsen. Saarland wound up winning the Remsen with a late rally, but that race has turned into a negative key race.
When he returned as a 3-year old in the Gotham Staks, Saarland had grown up and filled out. He made life easier on Velazquez, whom he dragged up into a contending position before he finished second to Mayakovsky.
"As a 2-year old, he was big and he was gangly and he was trying to find himself all the time," McGaughey said. "He kind of took himself back out of his races a little farther than he needed to. He could still finish, but that was hampering him some.
"Since the Gotham, I'm hoping that all these pieces are all coming together. He has probably quit growing. He's starting to fill out some. His works have been better than what they were before. His daily gallops are a little more aggressive than what they were. I'm hoping these are the signs that are saying he's starting to get it together."