02/24/2011 1:10PM

Soldat renews Derby dream for McLaughlin

Barbara D. Livingston
Soldat, Alan Garcia up, wins the With Anticipation.

Things have had a way of coming full circle for Soldat and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Soldat begin his career on dirt, took a detour to turf, and now is being given a chance to make the Kentucky Derby, starting with the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes on Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

Soldat is by War Front, a son of Danzig who began his career, ingloriously, with McLaughlin before finding his best form later on with Allen Jerkens. War Front accomplished enough to go to stud, and his strong first crop includes the likes of Soldat and West Coast speedster The Factor. Now, McLaughlin is training one of War Front’s most precocious sons.

And McLaughlin is a native of Kentucky, and though his training career has taken him to the world over, to Dubai and, more recently, New York and Florida, his heart is in his home state, where he bleeds Wildcat blue. After finishing second in the Derby in 2005 with his first Derby starter, Closing Argument, who led in deep stretch until being passed by Giacomo, McLaughlin was torn by what might have been.

DRF Derby Watch
Video and chart: Top 20 Kentucky Derby contenders »   Who's Hot, Who's Not »

“You have to be happy that he ran well and was second beaten only a half-length,” McLaughlin said the morning after the race, “but then you think, ‘Damn it, that was the Kentucky Derby!’ ”

Now, with Soldat, McLaughlin has a strong chance to give the Derby another go.

“It’s something you dream about, getting there, but it’s a long time until May 7,” McLaughlin said earlier this week from his barn at the Palm Meadows training center. “It’s a dream of everybody. I’ve got a large family – six brothers and sisters, mother and father, cousins. There would be a lot of expenses for box seats! It’s exciting. But it’s still a ways away.”

McLaughlin could move several steps closer on Saturday. Soldat will be one of the top choices in the Fountain of Youth, behind the acknowledged favorite, To Honor and Serve. Soldat has the advantage of a recent race over the track, and it was a powerful one, a 10 3/4-length victory at the same 1 1/8-mile distance as the Fountain of Youth in an allowance race on Jan. 21. That race was run on a sloppy track, but McLaughlin believes the footing – slop, fast, or, as Soldat has shown several times, grass – makes no difference.

“He trains well on dirt. I know it appears he moved up on wet, but that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t go great on a fast track,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t have the adjectives to describe how good he’s doing. He’s flying. He could not be better.

“But we realize he has to step up and face some very nice horses. I have a lot of respect for To Honor and Serve.”

Soldat was purchased as a yearling for $180,000 by bloodstock agent Steve Shahinian on behalf of owner Harvey Clarke, who cut in W. Craig Robertson III, a school chum of two of McLaughlin’s siblings, for a small share. This past week, Paul Braverman and the Namcook Stables of Terrence Murray and Jack Conley also acquired small shares in Soldat from Clarke.

“He’s 15-3 hands, about average size,” McLaughlin said. “He’s a plain brown wrapper. There’s not any white on him. He’s got a nice shape. Very athletic.”

Usually when something arrives in the mail in a plain brown wrapper, there’s an embarrassingly good reason for it. But McLaughlin didn’t have to hide Soldat, who showed enough talent to debut in June at Belmont Park.

Soldat finished second going five furlongs, then came back at Saratoga and was second again, this time going 5 1/2 furlongs. Both races proved productive. Pluck, the subsequent winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, was in the Belmont Park race, and Santiva, the Kentucky Jockey Club winner, was third in the Saratoga race.

“He ran great both times, but in the back of our mind, because War Front is by Danzig, we thought he might like grass, and there’s the opportunity to work on the grass at Saratoga,” McLaughlin said. “We thought we’d work him on it, and he worked extremely well. That’s why he moved right into the With Anticipation, even though he was a maiden. He was only going to have two opportunities to get into the Breeders’ Cup, so we thought we might as well run him in a stake as a maiden.”

Soldat won the With Anticipation at Saratoga, then was a troubled second in the Pilgrim at Belmont before finishing second again in the BC Juvenile Turf to Pluck.

“No excuse. He was second-best on the day,” McLaughlin said.

Once arriving in Florida for the winter, Soldat trained so well on the dirt at Palm Meadows that McLaughlin thought it was worth trying Soldat anew on the dirt.

“On the Derby list, he’s already got a lot of graded stakes money, so we want to see if he belongs,” McLaughlin said. “If not, we can go back to turf. But it’s worked out so far.

“If he runs well Saturday, 1-2-3, we can go on to the Florida Derby,” McLaughin added. “If he finishes fourth by 14, we may be looking at a different Derby, the Virginia Derby. But I’m looking for a good result. He’s doing fabulous.”

KENTUCKY DERBY ON TWITTER: Follow @DRFDerby for latest updates