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Let's gather again at Saratoga
ELMONT, N.Y. - The 2006 Triple Crown forever will be known for the ecstasy of watching Barbaro in the Kentucky Derby, and the agony of seeing Barbaro's career-ending injury in the Preakness Stakes. But performances by the two subsequent winners of Triple Crown races, and the anticipated returns of two highly regarded 3-year-olds this summer, bode well for the division the second half of the year, even if Barbaro will not be part of the mix.
Jazil, who rallied from last to first in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park, came out of the race well, according to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, and now will be pointed for the major race of the summer, the Grade 1, $1 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 26.
Bernardini, the brilliant winner of the Preakness, also has the 1 1/4-mile Travers on his agenda, according to trainer Tom Albertrani.
Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver, who finished second and third in the Belmont, also will be aimed for the Travers, according to their trainer, Todd Pletcher.
Steppenwolfer, who is expected to make his next start on turf in the Grade 2, $1 million Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs on July 15, also has the Travers as his target, according to trainer Dan Peitz.
But wait, there's more.
The undefeated Discreet Cat, who was a runaway winner of the United Arab Emirates Derby, worked five furlongs on Monday at Belmont Park and is nearing a return to action. The Travers could certainly be part of his campaign.
Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint will be back this summer after a freshening.
Also nearing a comeback is the speedy Henny Hughes, who has not raced since heading to Dubai following last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The Grade 1, $250,000 King's Bishop Stakes at seven furlongs at Saratoga is a sensible goal for him. The King's Bishop is also on the itinerary for Songster, who captured the Woody Stephens Breeders' Cup Stakes on the Belmont Stakes undercard. The King's Bishop is run the same day as the Travers.
So, go ahead, put a big, red circle around Aug. 26.
Jazil, who earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 102, gave McLaughlin his first victory in a Triple Crown race. Last year, McLaughlin, 45, finished second in the Derby with Closing Argument. McLaughlin completed a Triple Crown series in which each race was won by a trainer who had to make unconventional decisions that ultimately proved correct.
Michael Matz, who trains Barbaro, raced Barbaro just once in the 13 weeks before the Derby, and came into the Derby off a five-week layoff. No horse had won the Derby with a layoff of at least that length in 50 years.
Albertrani thought enough of Bernardini to challenge Barbaro only two starts after Bernardini defeated maidens. The Preakness also was Bernardini's first race around two turns, and only his fourth lifetime start.
McLaughlin agonized over whether to work Jazil on a muddy training track last Monday. He walked the track before the renovation, and immediately after it, then decided not to chance it with a colt who is not big and robust. As a result, Jazil had a mere two works between the Derby, in which he finished in a dead heat for fourth, and the Belmont.
The good-natured McLaughlin is popular among horsemen at Belmont Park. He is close friends with Pletcher, is married to the sister of trainer Mark Hennig, and has handled a near eight-year battle with multiple sclerosis with quiet dignity.
"I'm lucky because it's a mild case," McLaughlin said at his Belmont Park barn on Sunday morning. "I just give myself a single shot of Copaxone once a day, at night. The drug has been a savior. It's a lot like a diabetic who has to give himself an Insulin shot.
"You wouldn't buy me off my walk as a yearling," he said, smiling. "I'm a little stiff. I'm not a good walker."
"I'm sure it's not as easy as he makes it look," Pletcher said. "He's handled it extremely well."
McLaughlin, Pletcher, and Hennig all worked for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. McLaughlin said he received a congratulatory call from Lukas on Sunday morning, and "it brought tears to my eyes."
"He said he couldn't have been any prouder if it had been his own son," McLaughlin said.
Pletcher said McLaughlin was one of Lukas's chief assistants in New York when Pletcher first went to work for Lukas.
"Kiaran was great to work for," Pletcher said. "He's very easy to get along with. He's got a very laid-back personality. He's fun to be around. He's always got a smile on his face. I learned a lot working for him.
"He's a very good horseman," he added. "He's always had a very good opinion. He could easily identify the quality horses in the barn off just a couple of works. He's good with people. He's very good at communicating with owners. I watched and learned the way he handled different situations."
McLaughlin left training from February 1992 to October 1993 to work as an agent for jockey Chris Antley. He was lured back to training because of a generous offer from Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum. For nearly 10 years, McLaughlin spent six months in Dubai, six months in the United States. He decided to stay in the U.S. year-round in the spring of 2003, but Sheikh Hamdan has been right beside him the whole way. Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Farm owns Jazil.
"The people at Shadwell have been my biggest supporters for the past 12 years," McLaughlin said. "It's great to win this race for your favorite people."
That loyalty carried over to the way Shadwell and McLaughlin stuck with jockey Fernando Jara, 18. A jockey with little or no experience in Triple Crown races is often thrown overboard in favor of a veteran rider, but Shadwell and McLaughlin never wavered in their commitment to Jara.
McLaughlin now trains upward of 85 horses split between Belmont Park and Saratoga. His stable also includes Invasor, the winner of the Pimlico Special.
Bluegrass Cat, who finished second in both the Derby and the Belmont, "had a bit of a rough time on the first turn getting packed out when Bob and John stayed off the rail," Pletcher said.
"That sent us into the seven path," Pletcher said. "Aside from being wide, he had a clean trip."
Pletcher said Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver could prep for the Travers in races such as the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth on Aug. 6, or the Grade 2, $500,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga on July 29.
The Jim Dandy is the most likely next stop for Bernardini, Albertrani said.
"He's been in light training," Albertrani said. "The next few days, we'll pick things up."
Albertrani also trains Deputy Glitters, who stopped badly after a mile in the Belmont and finished 11th under jockey Edgar Prado. Albertrani theorized that Deputy Glitters displaced his palate.
"He seems fine, but something definitely was amiss," Albertrani said. "He stopped pretty quickly. Edgar said he went from having a lot of horse, to suddenly having no horse. The whole field passed him in the blink of an eye. He acted like a horse who suddenly was not getting his air."
- additional reporting by David Grening