Kiaran McLaughlin stepped down from training to become the agent for jockey Luis Saez. Coglianese Photo.

New Role Has McLaughlin Back in the Race for Kentucky Derby Glory

By Alicia Hughes

The narrative around Kiaran McLaughlin’s professional life these days is one he’s been waiting to experience for the better part of two decades. 

For years, the global powerhouse that is Godolphin has aimed to show up at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May with the weighty and wonderful expectations that come with campaigning the Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite. And if one had been taking odds on which horseman would help bring that moment to fruition, McLaughlin’s jovial visage would arguably be the morning-line pick.

It was the Kentucky native, after all, who spent more than a quarter century developing top horseflesh for Dubai’s ruling family, bringing out the best in such elite runners as It’s Tricky, Questing (GB), and Godolphin’s highest finisher to date in the first leg of the Triple Crown, multiple Grade 1-winner Frosted (4th in 2015).

Days out from the 147th edition of the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve, the blue silks of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s operation are finally poised to be carried by the leader of the sophomore ranks in champion and morning-line favorite Essential Quality and – as expected – McLaughlin has indeed playing a role in helping Godolphin’s homebred colt craft his unbeaten resume. 

His part in the equation, however, has shifted to a different side of the fence, one that is providing a new test for some old muscles. In pivoting away from his established skillset, the 60-year-old McLaughlin has actually managed to further enhance his reputation as one of the industry’s best when it comes to putting talent in position to succeed. 

Over 13 months have passed since McLaughlin came to a decision inspired by circumstance but solidified by choice. More than 25 years after first becoming a conditioner for Shadwell Stable and Godolphin Racing, McLaughlin stepped down from training last March to take over as the agent for jockey Luis Saez when Saez’s previous agent, Richard DePass, stated his own plans to retire. 

When word came down that McLaughlin was hanging up his shingle and picking up a rider’s book, shock waves reverberated throughout the industry. This wasn’t a case of a struggling conditioner beaten down by flailing results with no prospects on the horizon. This was one of the most respected horsemen in the game choosing to walk away after 1,578 wins, more than $124 million in career earnings, and list of top runners that includes Hall of Famer Invasor (ARG), Belmont Stakes winner Jazil, and Breeders’ Cup winners Lahudood (GB) and Tamarkuz.

One race that eluded McLaughlin during his training days was the Kentucky Derby as he saddled eight starters in the classic with his best finish coming in 2005 with runner-up Closing Argument. With Saez as the regular rider for Essential Quality, who was deemed the 2-1 favorite on the morning line, a celebration decades in the making may finally materialize for McLaughlin come the evening of May 1. 

“Of course, I’m pulling for Godolphin and it’s easy to pull for Luis because I work for him and he’s such a great kid,” McLaughlin said. “Godolphin is a special story if they could win this race. It’s a huge team and a great team here in America that basically I worked with for about 25 years, so it is special to think we’re there and have a big chance. And it would be very special for Luis being that he won (the Derby) two years ago but didn’t get to keep it (when Maximum Security was disqualified for interference). That was very difficult. 

“I feel blessed to be able to be in the position I’m in now. It’s very exciting.”

The transition from trainer to agent didn’t exactly require McLaughlin to dive into unfamiliar waters – just ones he hadn’t dipped in a toe into for some time. 

The former protégé to the legendary D. Wayne Lukas worked as the late Chris Antley’s agent in 1992-93 before departing that job to head up his own shedrow. From 1995 until 2019, there were only two years when McLaughlin’s barn didn’t notch at least $1 million in earnings, and he hadn’t been below $4 million in annual earnings since 2005.

When backstretch discussions centered around horsemen who did things “the right way”, McLaughlin’s name was often held up as Exhibit A. So, when it came down in 2019 that McLaughlin was fined more $300,000 by the New York State Department of Labor for violating minimum-wage requirements, it was a knife to the gut as much as it was a hit to his bottom line.

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If adversity was all it took to get McLaughlin to give up the training game, he would have sent that ship sailing decades earlier. 

Since 1998, the Lexington-born McLaughlin has battled multiple sclerosis, an unpredictable disease where nerve damage disrupts communication between the brain and the body. Even as the disorder increasingly impacted McLaughlin’s ability to walk, it took nothing away from his deft hand with managing his runners, such as when he sent Frosted out to a 14 ¼-length victory in the 2016 Metropolitan Handicap (G1) barely three months after the colt’s fifth-place run in the Dubai World Cup (G1)

A hardship that became more challenging to tackle was that of workforce issues on the backstretch – exacerbated by a demand for H-2B visas for seasonal guest workers that outstripped the supply – and the rising cost of doing business in the state of New York where McLaughlin was based most of the year. Not only was the situation become financially unsustainable, it wore on McLaughlin’s emotional well-being.

Hence, when DePass reached out to see if McLaughlin would entertain taking over Saez’s book, it was the green light he was looking for to act on a notion he’d been mulling in the recesses of his mind.

“It was a pretty easy (decision) when you think about what an outstanding jockey Luis is,” McLaughlin said. “I’m able to stay in the game and be able to work with people I’ve worked with my whole life and visit with trainers. The regulations were just getting a bit difficult for me. It was just so expensive.

“We tried to do everything right and still got in a little trouble with the state for payments and got a rather large fine. It kind of broke my heart a little bit when they did that because I was very, very good to all my help and I took care of everybody well – and all of them would tell you that. And then to get fined, it was almost impossible to do everything right. So, when this opportunity came up, I felt blessed to be able to go to work for Luis.”

Rare were the times in McLaughlin’s training career where he couldn’t advance a talent that had the mind to match their physical prowess, and his pairing with the wunderkind that is Saez has been the latest example of such. 

Though his name was linked with infamy in 2019 due to the Kentucky Derby disqualification aboard Maximum Security, Saez actually posted a career-best mark in earnings that season while building up his reputation as a rider trainers wanted for the biggest races. His aggressive style earned him his share of days from stewards, but his unflappable demeanor and ability to get his mounts home no matter where they were sitting was also earning him currency with some of the top horsemen in the game.

“He’s a world class rider, bottom line,” Brad Cox, trainer of Essential Quality, said of Saez. “We’ve been riding him for 4-5 years. You get your money’s worth with him and he always gives a big effort. He’s a classy, classy guy and, honestly if you met him and you knew him, the last thing in the world you would think is that he is a guy who could get rattled. He’s very low key and even kneeled.”

Since joining forces with McLaughlin, Saez’s already elevated game has hit some new stratospheres. In 2020, he notched a career-high 20 graded stakes victories, nine of which were Grade 1 triumphs. He first climbed aboard Essential Quality when the two paired up to win the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity Stakes (G1) at Keeneland last October and a month later, the gray son of Tapit gave his pilot his first career Breeders’ Cup victory when they rallied from off the pace to win the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by three-quarters of a length.  

Jockey Luis Saez guides Essential Quality to victory in the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland April 3, 2021. Coady Photography.

“Working with Kiaran is one of the biggest things to happen to me. He’s like family and we are pretty close,” Saez said. “He’s doing a tremendous job. He’s really putting me on horses that I feel like I never could have been on. I’m so glad and grateful that he has my book.”

Having McLaughlin in his corner means that Saez has an ally that holds an inherently deep level of respect amongst fellow horsemen. Because he was one of them not that long ago, McLaughlin has relationships with trainers that go beyond traditional communications between themselves and agents. 

Though he acknowledges the strong standing he brings to the table, McLaughlin is quick to point out that he has the luxury of not having to give a hard sell where his jockey is concerned. 

“The main thing is that I have a top rider. Your relationships with people will only take you so far but, if you don’t have the top rider to work with, then it would be more difficult,” McLaughlin said. “But yes, people like Todd (Pletcher) have been great and Wayne (Lukas) has been great. We have a lot of relationships, but the main thing is Luis has to perform, and he does.”

If recent history is any indicator, Saez could be poised to uncork the performance of his life this Saturday.

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On the evening of March 27, Saez was sitting aboard another Godolphin homebred taking aim at one of the most prestigious prizes in Thoroughbred racing. After guiding Mystic Guide to victory in the $12 million Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline, the 28-year-old native of Panama could officially boast of being the helmsman for both the leading sophomore runner and top-ranked handicap horse in North America.

After watching Mystic Guide finish ahead of his mounts in both the Jim Dandy Stakes (G2) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) last year, McLaughlin was able to get Saez on the chestnut son of Ghostzapper when the Michael Stidham trainee made his seasonal bow in the Grade 3 Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park Feb. 27. The end result was a sublime six-length triumph, an effort that set Mystic Guide up for his masterclass run in the Dubai World Cup when he bested the field by 3 ¾-lengths to give Godolphin its record ninth win in the race.

One week later, Saez again had a winner’s circle dominated by those in blue and white as he booted Essential Quality to victory in the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. In the span of a handful of strides in the stretch, Essential Quality went sitting on the cusp of his first career loss to surging past pacesetter Highly Motivated, a win that highlighted both the colt’s mettle and his jockey’s unruffled demeanor. 

“To Luis’s credit, he never panicked and always had him in position,” said Jimmy Bell, president of Godolphin’s U.S. operations. “After the Blue Grass, I asked how worried he was and he said ‘I really wasn’t because I could feel what I had’.”

What Saez and McLaughlin have in spades right now is momentum. Saez would record six multiple-win days during the Keeneland Spring Meet to amass 29 victories and earn his first Keeneland riding title. He already has 11 graded stakes wins through April 26 and has been quietly beaming after climbing off Essential Quality following the colt’s final two works in preparation for the Kentucky Derby.

So, as he has done on eight prior occasions, McLaughlin will watch the Derby post parade on Saturday and feel that same nervous energy of knowing he’s done all he can to prepare his young star. It will not be a bittersweet moment, he insists, mostly because he’s not feeling particularly wistful. 

He’s still associated with some of the best talent in the sport. That part of the equation hasn’t changed.

“No, I haven’t (thought about returning to training). It’s only been one year but I haven’t,” McLaughlin said. “It’s tough. It’s not a one man show. You’d have to get your people together again. But I don’t think I’ll be back. I’m enjoying this end of it.”