05/18/2005 11:00PM

Ready wherever opportunity knocks

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"I feel very confident we're one of the horses to beat. Giacomo beat us two weeks ago, but I wouldn't trade places with anybody." - Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin on Closing Argument (above)

BALTIMORE - Kiaran McLaughlin came thisclose to Kentucky Derby glory two weeks ago at Churchill Downs. The journey to get there, however, took him many miles across the country and around the world.

First as an assistant to trainer D. Wayne Lukas, then as an agent for jockey Chris Antley, and finally as a trainer for the powerful Maktoum family's racing team in the United Arab Emirates, McLaughlin has always been a man in search of opportunity.

And he has made the most of every one.

Now a public trainer of about 80 horses, McLaughlin, 44, figures to be one of the leading trainers on the East Coast for years to come. He figures to get more opportunities like the one he had two weeks ago with Closing Argument, a 70-1 shot who came within a half-length of Giacomo in the Kentucky Derby.

At first he felt a sense of exhilaration to have his horse leading in deep stretch of the Derby. Then it became a sense of frustration to come that close and not to win.

"That might carry on for weeks, months, I hope not years because hopefully we will get back and get lucky enough to win it one time,'' said McLaughlin, who has brought Closing Argument to Baltimore for Saturday's $1 million Preakness. "It's gone so fast like, 'Wow, what a thrill to almost to get there.' ''

The last two decades in racing for McLaughlin have been a thrill ride, with professional highs as well as some personal lows.

From 1985 to 1992, McLaughlin worked as an assistant to Lukas, running shed rows in Kentucky, New York, and New Jersey at a moment's notice. Standing in the receiving barn at Aqueduct in 1988, McLaughlin watched on television as Winning Colors gave Lukas his first Derby win.

McLaughlin left Lukas in February 1992 because he and his wife, Letty, had a year-old daughter and they wanted to settle down in New York. McLaughlin began booking mounts for Antley, one of the most talented riders in the sport. But in less than 18 months, Antley had fallen out of favor with New York horsemen and McLaughlin suggested he go to Southern California to start fresh.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin, through acquaintances such as Helen Alexander, Anthony Stroud, and Rick Nichols, was given the opportunity to work in Dubai for Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum's Godolphin Racing. By 1995, McLaughlin and his family would spend half the year in the Middle East and half in the United States.

McLaughlin said he loved Dubai and the only reason he left in 2003 was because he and his wife wanted to raise their two children, daughter Erin, now 14, and son Ryan, 11, in America.

"People think it's a hardship move to go to Dubai,'' McLaughlin said. "It's not. It's a beautiful country, a great place to work. The quality of life for myself, my wife, and my kids was second to none - with a maid, she cooked and cleaned, did it all. We lived a rock's throw from the beach. We had a great lifestyle. It wasn't easy to leave.''

McLaughlin said he and his wife felt their children would become accustomed to always having everything they wanted.

"We just felt like it was hard for them to understand that life isn't Disney World every day, and that's what it was like there," McLaughlin said. "It was Disney World in the Middle East.''

Not for McLaughlin, however. In October 1998, McLaughlin found out he had multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. There is no cure for multiple sclerosis, and the diagnosis left the fun-loving, happy-go-lucky McLaughlin in a depressed state.

"It was huge mentally," McLaughlin said. "It really did throw me for a 30-day depression period. I would never have thought I was an also-eligible to be depressed, but I was. I was like, 'Man, can I keep this house? Can I keep supporting my family? Can I keep my job?' All of it was weighing heavily on my brain.''

McLaughlin suffered a setback in February 1999 when he developed blurred vision and needed a cane to walk. For the last six years, he has taken a daily injection of Copaxine - a class of drug called beta interferon, which inhibits certain white blood cells and in some studies has reduced the severity and number of multiple sclerosis attacks. Aside from numbness in his right arm, McLaughlin said the disease doesn't hinder him.

"I've been lucky with it," he said. "It's been a mild case. It hasn't affected my life."

In 2003, McLaughlin opened up a public stable. While he still trained some horses for the Maktoums, McLaughlin took on other clients such as Joe Allen, Frank Stronach, and West Point Thoroughbreds. McLaughlin won 46 races from 186 starters in 2003 and had his best year in 2004, winning 84 races from 462 runners. His stable earned $5.5 million in purse money in 2004.

In early 2004, McLaughlin met Philip and Marcia Cohen. The Cohens had success developing horses such as Buckle Down Ben, Booklet, and Hennie's Song and then selling them for nice profits.

It appeared the same fate was in store for Closing Argument. After winning three of his first four starts, including the Holy Bull Stakes in January, Closing Argument was close to being sold to owner Michael Gill for a reported $2 million. The deal fell through when Gill was unhappy with a veterinarian's examination.

Closing Argument missed the Florida Derby with a minor foot bruise and was off for 11 weeks before finishing third in the Blue Grass. While some people viewed the nine-length loss as a sign of limitations for Closing Argument - who on the surface has a sprinter's pedigree - McLaughlin saw something different.

"To get a horse to be at his very best off of 75 days with a little bump in the road, it's almost impossible,'' McLaughlin said. "So I knew in my heart and in my mind that we were going to go forward from [Blue Grass] race. And he did go forward.''

McLaughlin went into the Derby believing his horse could beat half the field. Of course, one of those he felt he could beat was Giacomo, who had won just once from seven starts. Entering the Preakness, McLaughlin is more confident.

"Our horse continues to improve and is doing very well,'' he said. "Now I feel very confident we're one of the horses to beat. Afleet Alex, I've always respected a lot. He's had a lot more races than us, and we're fairly fresh. Giacomo beat us two weeks ago, but I wouldn't trade places with anybody, where I might have two weeks ago.''

Regardless of what happens in the Preakness, McLaughlin's brush with Derby glory has him lusting to get back for another shot.

"You want to get back for sure, and hopefully with 30 2-year-olds we will have one that jumps up and can get us there,'' he said.