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McLaughlin Derby Hopes Hinge Upon Haikal


Haikal winning the Gotham | Sarah K Andrew

By Alan Carasso

Somewhat remarkably, just one horse trained by Kiaran McLaughlin was nominated the 2019 Triple Crown. But for having a single chance to enter battle with, the stable could do worse than Haikal (Daaher), who looks to punch his ticket to the GI Kentucky Derby in Saturday’s GII Wood Memorial S. at Aqueduct.

A homebred half-brother to the mercurial ‘TDN Rising Star’ Takaful (Bernardini), Haikal closed fast to just miss in his seven-furlong debut Nov. 10, then came got home in :24.07 to graduate by a neck in a six-furlong maiden Dec. 15. That same tenacity and determination was on display when proving a head best in the Feb. 9 Jimmy Winkfield S., setting him up for the GIII Gotham S. stretching out to the one-turn mile Mar. 2. Well back behind a cracking pace, Haikal looked to have it all to do even as deep into the race as the final furlong, but he hit another gear and raced over the top of his rivals to best ‘Rising Stars’ Mind Control (Stay Thirsty) and Instagrand (Into Mischief) by a widening length.

“He stepped up big time against graded stakes horses and finished the way he’s been finishing, except he passed better horses,” McLaughlin told an NTRA national teleconference Tuesday, referring to the Gotham. “It was exciting to see him finish that way and run so well. Obviously we’re not going to get a :44 half in the Wood, but hopefully there will be plenty of speed and he’ll not be so far back. Every start he’s finished well the final three-sixteenths and hopefully he will going a mile and an eighth.”

The conditioner acknowledges that Saturday’s nine-furlong trip is a bit of an open question, but that no conclusions should be drawn through the single-minded and tempestuous Takaful.

“His brother was very difficult. He was a run-off and was very tough to train,” McLaughlin said of GI Vosburgh S. hero Takaful. “This horse is the opposite–he does everything right, different horse, he’s got a great mind. We feel like he might be even better going further and he should be at least able to handle the nine furlongs. We just hope that there’s a decent pace.”

McLaughlin is optimistic–if not 100% certain–that Haikal, whose paternal grandsire Awesome Again won a GI Breeders’ Cup Classic and whose damsire Distorted Humor was responsible himself for a GI Kentucky Derby winner, will thrive at Saturday’s journey and beyond.

“[I’m] not convinced, but we feel like he will get the distance and we’ll certainly find out more Saturday afternoon, because we’ve gone six, seven, eight and now nine furlongs,” McLaughlin said. “His attitude is great, he stands over a lot of ground, he’s got a lot of scope and he just does everything asked of him. We don’t think that nine furlongs should be a problem, but we’ll find out. We like him at the nine furlongs.”

McLaughlin went agonizingly close to winning the Derby when Closing Argument (Successful Appeal) was just outfinished by Giacomo (Holy Bull) in 2005. Add that near-miss to his long and fruitful relationship with Sheikh Hamdan and it’s clear McLaughlin relishes the opportunity at hand.

“It would be fabulous to get there and to perform well,” he said. “We’ve been fourth three times also [with Shadwell’s Jazil (Seeking the Gold, dead-heat, 2006); Frosted (Tapit, 2015); and Mohaymen (Tapit, 2016). Getting there would be unbelievable. To even run well we’d be happy, but we’re there to win it if we’re good enough.”

Baffert Feeling Little Pressure This Year…

Though he has trained two Triple Crown winners in the span of four years and though his two best chances this season-arguably-lost their undefeated records in separate divisions of the GII Rebel S. Mar. 16, trainer Bob Baffert is welcoming the chance at another run at this year’s Classics.

“No, not really,” he replied when asked if the pressure is off given the defeats suffered by his ‘TDN Rising Star’ pair of champion Game Winner (Candy Ride {Arg}) and Improbable (City Zip). “We wanted to win those races [in Hot Springs]. Improbable–now he needs to run lights out in the [GI] Arkansas Derby. He needs to run first or second if he’s going to get into the Derby, so I think there’s even more pressure now. If they’re good enough, they’ll get it done.”

Game Winner has done well since his loss at the hands of Omaha Beach (War Front) and indicated his readiness for Saturday’s GI Santa Anita Derby with a six-furlong work that was timed in 1:13.40 (1/11) Apr. 1. A repeat of his last, win or lose, would be just fine with Baffert.

“If he ran the same race [as he did in the Rebel], we’d be fine with it, because the next one–that’s when we really want him to take the big step,” Baffert explained. “We just want him to stay healthy and we really don’t want a blowout race the race before.”

Speedway Stable’s Roadster (Quality Road) is yet another of the Baffert gaggle of ‘TDN Rising Stars’ and he gets his crack at a Derby berth at Santa Anita this Saturday. Third to Game Winner as the odds-on favorite in last year’s GI Del Mar Futurity, the $525,000 Keeneland September purchase returned to the races with a strong 2 1/2-length victory over the well-regarded Nolo Contesto (Pioneerof the Nile) in a one-mile allowance Mar. 1. He worked a bullet six panels in 1:12.60 (1/19) Mar. 31.

“His comeback race was off the charts,” said Baffert. “I was so happy with it, Mike Smith was really happy with him. He’s coming into this race really well, he’s been working well, he looks healthy, he’s fresh. He’s a very light horse and that’s why I didn’t want to ship him anywhere. I expect him to run a big race.”

Baffert added that Rising Star‘ Dessman (Union Rags) was under consideration for Saturday’s Wood Memorial, but would pass the race after working only fairly (6f in 1:14.80) Apr. 1.

“His work was nice, but I was looking for something over the top, so I’m just going to wait a little bit on him,” he said.

Much Better (Pioneerof the Nile), fourth after setting a fast pace in the Gotham, cuts back to seven-eighths for Saturday’s GIII Bay Shore S. at Aqueduct.

Despite the flurry of activity coming over the next several weeks, the recent events in California have weighed heavily on Baffert’s mind, and he took a few minutes to reflect on the situation.

“We’ve been under this dark cloud and hopefully we can move forward,” he said introspectively. “It’s supposed to be fun. This is our version of ‘March Madness.’ There’s been a lot going on here, unfortunately, in California, we’ve been getting beat down pretty good. But you know what? It’s a beautiful sport, people don’t really understand it. We’ve had some bad luck here and it’s very unusual what’s going on.

He continued, “You’re always concerned about the negative publicity. They don’t know really how it works here. They don’t know how we take care of these horses. My job is not to worry about them, I’m worried about these horses. These horses–they’re not our livelihood, they’re our way of life. We have to make this work. I have a lot of employees, I worry about their families. Racing needs to do well. This last month has been, I would say, a little stressful.”


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