By Ciara Bowen
Kiaran McLaughlin came within half a length of winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) in 2005 when Closing Argument finished second to 50-1 shot Giacomo. Since then the affable conditioner has returned with three contenders —Jazil (4th), Flashy Bull (14th), and Alpha (12th)—but this year looks to have his best shot at victory with Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) winner Cairo Prince .
Before the Pioneerof the Nile colt makes it to Churchill Downs, he will need to perform his best in the Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park March 29.
Cairo Prince, bred in Kentucky out of the grade III-placed Holy Bull mare Holy Bubbette, has won three of four starts. His most recent was the 1 1/16-mile event named after his dam's sire on Jan. 25, after which Darley purchased a majority interest from an ownership group consisting of Namcook Stables (Terry Murray), Paul Braverman, Harvey Clarke, and Craig Robertson III.
Cairo Prince's only loss was to the now-sidelined Honor Code
by a head in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes (gr. II) Nov. 30 at Aqueduct Racetrack
. He had his last work prior to the Florida Derby on March 22, breezing a half mile in :50.90. Here, 54-year-old McLaughlin discusses his most recent, and perhaps best, Derby prospect.
Did Cairo Prince strike you as a potential Derby contender from the start?
"Very interesting question and answer. We really liked him a lot and we got a little unlucky early in August. The blacksmith got him and lamed him up with a nail and it's usually not a big deal, but that ended up being a bit of a big one. We missed a couple weeks and got pushed back, but we always liked him a lot.
"When we entered him, in the paddock that day, Paul Braverman said to me, 'Do you have any Derby horses this year?' And I said, 'Paul, this is our Derby horse.' He said, 'Really? Out of all those babies you have for Shadwell and Darley, this is the horse?' I said, 'Yeah, this is the horse.' So we liked him early, and we've liked him often. He's been our Derby horse from the beginning."
What's he like to handle in the barn?
"Great! He's a real special horse to be around, very smart. He does everything right and he's always a pleasure to be around."
Has that always been the case, or did he change as he developed experience?
"He has always been that way, a real classy horse. He's a very smart horse and he has just done everything right."
When did you first have an idea that you were right, that he would really be good enough for the Derby trail?
"I loved the Nov. 3 race,, the Nashua (gr. II). He did it the right way, impressively after breaking his maiden first time out. He won impressively his second time out in a stakes, and that's when we really liked him more, and he proved at that point that we were correct in our assessment."
Which of Cairo Prince's performances surprised you?
"He should not have gotten beat in the Remsen. The jockey made a mistake, and the racing conditions got us. I disagree with a lot about the point system. I don't like the point system. We won the prep for the Remsen and we were penalized. We had to give everybody six pounds in the Remsen—including Honor Code, who beat us six inches. Our jockey thought we went by at the eighth pole and that we were gonna win, and he had his stick down. Honor Code came back and it was too late in the race. We lost by a nose giving Honor Code six pounds, and that's why we skipped the Fountain of Youth (gr. II). We were going to have to give everyone six pounds again. In the Florida Derby, everyone carries 123.
"So my point about the points is that if you want 20 of the best horses to get in the gate for the Kentucky Derby, you have to give equal weight to everybody. You can't penalize people for winning prep races. What if you have no points? We had no points and then go to the Remsen and we're giving a horse six pounds and lose by six inches. It's not fair, it's not proper, it's poorly done. I dislike the point system altogether."
Talk about skipping the Fountain of Youth and training straight to the Florida Derby. What are the benefits to that decision?
"The negative is that we skipped a race and we're going to have 60 days in between and that's not always easily done in horse racing. But the positives are that we have a fresh, happy, healthy horse. He ran so fast on figures in the Holy Bull that we were afraid of regression coming back in the Fountain of Youth. We said we were just going to give up a race.
"The pluses are plentiful. We're happy that he's training great, and that he's healthy. We're happy that he's doing great. We feel like it's a plus to let the other horses run more frequently and beat each other up a bit, and we're at home waiting for the Florida Derby."
Is he where you want him to be at this point?
"Yes, absolutely. He's ready to go, he's happy. We wish the Kentucky Derby was next Saturday instead of the Florida Derby. Now we have to train for another five weeks to get there. But he's really doing great."
When training a horse for the Triple Crown trail, you have to balance going sparingly on the prep races so that you have more left in your horse for the Triple Crown, but you also want to make sure that you've got enough bottom and experience into them. That has to be a tough thing to do.
"Exactly, and that's why we're doing it the way we're doing it. That's why we skipped the Fountain of Youth. They're not machines. You can't run them every four weeks, five weeks. Well, you can, but it's going to be tough to keep going. We thought about the Kentucky Derby as the main goal, so we're happy.
"We only have 14 points, and I don't agree with that, again, but we have 14 points. I feel pretty good that if we finish one, two, three, or four in any major prep—so, his next race, which right now is the Florida Derby—we will get in. If we finish fourth we get 10 points. And how the hell did they come up with those numbers? You finish fourth in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) or the Florida Derby; it's a better race than the Remsen or the Holy Bull. I don't believe that. I hate the point system, for the 10th time, but we're going to have to deal with it.
"So I'm happy, and we're going to have to get there. We're trying to point for May 3, it's what we've had in our minds for a long time. We're ready and we've prepped and everything."
Some trainers like to stick to Derby preps in New York, others like the series at Oaklawn, etc. What is it about the Florida preps that appealed to you for Cairo Prince, other than the fact that you're based there in the winter?
"We're here in Florida in the winter, and New York in the winter, and we've had great success in both places. This particular horse has done extremely well this winter in Florida. We have a plane reservation on April 2 for him, so we could possibly scratch in the Florida Derby if it rains and it's a mess. There's rain in the forecast. If we drew 12 of 12 we could scratch and go to the Wood Memorial. But the owners are great; either way we go, they're happy.
"The reason we want to race in Florida is we like the five weeks until the Kentucky Derby. The timing is great. The Wood Memorial is four weeks, which we also like, but we prefer five weeks. We prefer being here in Florida because we're already here and he's done so well training at Palm Meadows."
Since you sat out the Fountain of Youth, you probably had a chance to analyze contenders a little more without worrying about your own. Who has impressed you in Florida, both in training and on the racetrack?
"I would say that the horse that has got me worried the most is Social Inclusion
, the horse that beat Honor Code. He was very impressive. The horses that finished one-two in the Fountain of Youth, too. And the horse of Todd Pletcher's—Constitution
—that won an allowance race that day impressed me. There are plenty of nice horses out here, and we just have to hope we don't draw post 12 of 12 or 14 of 14, and we just have to work out a good trip. The track is still speed-favoring, although we hope it won't be on race day, especially if there's a lot of speed in the race. The weather is concerning me a little bit. There's supposed to be like four days of rain before the Florida Derby right now. We'll just watch how the race forms."
What do you hope to see from Cairo Prince in the Florida Derby?
"We hope that he finishes one, two, three, or four so that we do get into the Kentucky Derby. That's the most important thing, but considering the way he's training and with how he's doing, we expect him to run very well. If we finish second or third and don't win, it's not the end of the world because we're pointing for the Derby. But we hope to have a clean trip, and hope things go right, and we hope to win. I could see us finishing second or third here because the track is really still speed-favoring. But w're trying to win, for sure. It's an important race."
Many people have expressed doubt at Cairo Prince's ability to win at the mile-and-a-quarter distance of the Kentucky Derby due to his pedigree. Do you think he will be able to perform at his best at this distance?
"Yes, he can handle it. For sure, the distance should not be an issue. He might finish second or third and get beat and have trouble in the Kentucky Derby. But we're a long way away from that still. As far as pedigrees go, Pioneerof the Nile finished second in the Kentucky Derby. His dam is Holy Bubbette, and she's a taller, leggier horse. We've had no problem handling a mile and an eighth or a mile and sixteenth. So far, we don't think it's going to be a negative; it's a positive to me."
In the Remsen, Cairo Prince carried six pounds more than Honor Code, and was just barely beaten by the other colt. Were you happy with that performance?
"I was not happy with our ride. Our jockey was overconfident and he sat there and went by (Honor Code), and instead of hitting him twice and opening up three lengths, he let Honor Code come back. But it was a very good race, and we should be undefeated today. We should be four-for-four. But because of the six pounds and the poor ride...we left Luis (Saez) on him because he wouldn't make that mistake again, we didn't think. But yes, I was very happy with the race, I just wasn't pleased with our ride that day."
What do you think he gained from the experience?
"I don't really know—and does it matter? The main thing is, and I say this over and over, we don't need experience and we don't need to change anything. We don't need to do anything except to get there that day. That's both Florida Derby day and Kentucky Derby day. We have the horse, we just need to get there and keep him happy, sound, and healthy. That's our main goal."
You've trained several good horses throughout the years. Who were a couple of your favorites?
"Invasor. He was my no question favorite horse. He was a super horse. He brought us great pleasure in winning the World Cup (UAE-I) in Dubai and the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) here. And I would say Questing, she was an awesome horse to be around. Henny Hughes (as well). We've had our share of fun ones."
To date, you've started four horses in the Derby, with the top finisher being Closing Argument, who ran second in 2005. How do you feel Cairo Prince fits in with your past contenders talent-wise?
"No comparison. No comparison. He's that much better than all of them that we've run."