03/15/2012 12:50PM

Oaklawn trainer Lauer dreams big with Rebel contender Scatman

Oaklawn Park/Coady Photography
Scatman (right), finishing second to Secret Circle in the Southwest, will try to take another step toward the Kentucky Derby in Saturday’s Rebel at Oaklawn. His trainer, Michael Lauer, has never had a Derby horse in a career that spans three decades.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Mike Lauer has seen the Kentucky Derby in person perhaps 40 times, but never as the trainer of a horse in the race. As a lifelong horseman who unofficially began his racetrack career as an 11-year-old at the old Toledo Raceway in his home state of Ohio, Lauer, now 60, would love to have a Derby horse one day.

As the 138th Derby at Churchill Downs draws nearer, Lauer is just a couple of prep races away from making that a reality. His 3-year-old colt Scatman runs Saturday in the $500,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, and if the performance is good enough to merit a run-back in the April 14 Arkansas Derby, Lauer will find himself on the threshold of his dream.

“My first Derby was 1966,” Lauer said. “I was on the backside and saw [Don] Brumfield come by two [lengths] on top.” Brumfield and Kauai King held on to win that Derby in a three-way photo finish.

Lauer estimates he missed a handful of subsequent Derbies while earning a history degree from Ohio State University and starting his training career at less glamorous tracks in Ohio. But he has seen every Kentucky Derby since 1981, shortly before he moved to the Louisville area, where he and his wife of 29 years, Penny, have raised three daughters (ages 24, 20, 17) on a farm in Finchville, 30 minutes east of Churchill Downs.

For some three decades, Lauer has been a fixture in Barn 21 on the Churchill backside and claims to be second in seniority in one notable category. “Only Lynn Whiting has been in the same barn at Churchill longer that me,” he said, referring to the trainer who won the Derby 20 years ago with Lil E. Tee.

Longevity has not necessarily translated into overwhelming success for Lauer, who has become more familiar to some of his colleagues as “the van man” than as a rival trainer. Lauer has owned and managed a regional horse vanning business for more than 30 years, a business he deemed vital to making ends meet. The business is still in operation with two white six-horse vans and a two-horse trailer with an “ML” logo painted on the sides.

“You can make a pretty good living by vanning horses, and I have,” Lauer said. “I started it because I figured if I’m sending a horse somewhere, I might as well take him myself, and it just grew from there. I’ve actually wondered my whole life how some of these other guys make it without doing something on the side. That’s not a knock. All I know is, raising three kids and having all these bills, I couldn’t have made it without the vans.”

Lauer typically books the transports himself, and he has several part-time employees on call at any given time for driving and loading and unloading. He also is very much a hands-on trainer who arrives at the barn early in the morning, and many of his days are a whirlwind of activity, especially the phone work involved in attending to vanning details and communicating with owners. Penny handles the bookkeeping for the trucking business, farm, and racing stable and also oversees much of the farm work.

Although he has a number of outside clients, Lauer races many of his own horses, most of them in Penny’s name, and he has invested heavily through the years in his farm, which he bought in 1987. The farm now encompasses a little more than 100 acres, with about a dozen broodmares. Although loyal for years to Kentucky, he also has branched out by breeding horses in states with alluring slots-fueled incentive programs, primarily in neighboring Indiana.

“Mike probably owns all or part of 70 to 80 percent of the horses he trains,” said Jack Danehy, a Louisville businessman who has had horses with Lauer for more than 25 years. “And I’ve heard from some pretty smart people that it’s not a bad idea to be in business with someone who bets on himself.”

Since 1976, Lauer has 33 stakes wins from nearly 700 overall wins, but none of those stakes was graded. His stable largely has comprised claiming types, with the occasional good one thrown in. Snack, a 3-year-old of 2005, had perhaps the biggest impact on Lauer’s career, but the tale had a grim ending. After the homebred colt won the Indiana Futurity at 2, then the Turfway Prevue and WEBN Stakes at Turfway Park in his first two races at 3, Lauer sold an 80 percent interest for what he termed “a considerable amount” to J. Paul Reddam, the deep-pocketed Southern California owner who turned the colt over to trainer Doug O’Neill.

“That was a life-changer,” Lauer said. “It’s basically what a guy like me is in the game for, to raise a good horse and sell him to make your life easier.”

Sadly, in his first race out West, Snack broke down badly on the final turn in the Grade 2 Santa Catalina Stakes at Santa Anita on March 5, 2005, and had to be euthanized.

Scatman, a bay colt by the hot young sire Scat Daddy, most recently ran a bang-up second in a division of the Feb. 20 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. That was his second race for Lauer, who was sent the colt by owners Jim and Ellen O’Grady. Scatman had raced in three maiden sprints for Eddie Kenneally, winning the last one. Jim O’Grady, a retired New York businessman now living in western North Carolina, preferred Oaklawn to Gulfstream, where Kenneally winters. He decided to move the horse to Lauer, who is in his third year at Oaklawn after spending winters at home and racing mostly at Turfway.

Scatman was a 3 1/2-length winner of a six-furlong Oaklawn allowance Jan. 29 before the Southwest, a one-mile race in which he and jockey Luis Quinonez led all the way before Secret Circle surged past in the last 70 yards to prevail by a half-length.

Scatman has speed, but Lauer said he doesn’t need the lead in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel.

“He really is the kind of horse that you can do what you want with him,” he said. “The big question is whether he’s good enough as the races get tougher.”

Lauer obviously has little firsthand experience from which to gauge whether Scatman is good enough to make the May 5 Kentucky Derby, but he believes he has soaked up enough to make wise decisions along the way.

“It has always intrigued me how different trainers use different methods leading up to the Derby,” he said. “I do feel there is no set pattern or foolproof way to prepare to win the Derby. You just hope your horse is in top form that day and the crowd doesn’t bother them. On Derby Day, luck is a giant factor.”

While a victory in the Rebel would mark his first in a graded stakes, it also would get Lauer that much closer to an even greater first – a Kentucky Derby starter.

“We usually go with clients and get a table in the clubhouse,” Lauer said. “Maybe it’ll be a little different this year.”