What does it take to get a horse to the Kentucky Derby? To find out, ESPN.com is tracking a top 3-year-old -- 2001 Remsen Stakes winner Saarland -- for as long as he is a viable candidate for Derby 128. Trainer Shug McGaughey has granted writer Jeremy Plonk daily access to his barn to construct a detailed diary of Saarland's journey on the Road to the Roses, recording his activities as well as those of the people that care for him. Here is how the Cynthia Phipps-owned sophomore spent the fifth week of 2002.
Tuesday, Jan. 29
Nothing says Derby like a little controversy on the road to Louisville. The dirt has been…well…the dirt. Major racing publications coast-to-coast this morning scream headlines that Saarland will bypass the Feb. 16 Fountain of Youth Stakes because of Gulfstream Park's deep and loose racing surface. Trainer Shug McGaughey says not so fast. "That was blown totally out of proportion," McGaughey affirms. "What I said is that I want to see how this track handles in the next couple of weeks. It's a wait-and-see thing. We're still on schedule." On this morning, Saarland does not have to navigate the track, however. He's given a rare, second consecutive morning off because of the South Florida heat. McGaughey planned the extra day off over the weekend and sticks by his plan. Inside the shedrow of Barn 14, Saarland walks 40 minutes under tack with exercise rider Juice Krajewski aboard.
Wednesday, Jan. 30
Saarland returns to the much-discussed Gulfstream Park racetrack this morning for a one-mile gallop. At 6:40 a.m., he escapes much of the sweltering heat that has consumed the greater Miami area this month. "It's not bothering him at all," Krajewski says. "He's sweating a little bit, but they all are. He goes out early enough that the sun's just coming up." As for the maligned racing surface? "He's starting to pick it up a little bit," Krajewski says "He's adapting to this racetrack, not that he likes it, but he's learning to get into it more."
Thursday, Jan. 31
A second-straight day of galloping one mile comprises Saarland's workload. Krajewski keeps the big horse well off the rail in his gallops, which has been a boon this winter. "When you hit the lane (stretch), the first five paths are like quicksand," says McGaughey's exercise rider of six years. McGaughey himself adds, "I'm not complaining one bit about the track. We just have to see if it's right for a big horse like him. You have to worry about the track surface no matter where you run." Meanwhile, stablemate Maybry's Boy tours Gulfstream Park's paddock this morning in preparation for Saturday's Grade 2 Hutcheson Stakes. McGaughey likes to "school" each of his horses in the paddock once before they run. They get a sense of the atmosphere and enclosure prior to the big show. Call it a dress rehearsal of sorts.
Friday, Feb. 1
Rip January off the calendar. Saarland is still a few weeks away from his return to the races and history indicates that should not be a problem. Since 1980, only 9 of the 22 Kentucky Derby winners made their 3-year-old debuts in January. However, each of the past four Derby champs did have a start in January. Saarland gallops 1 ½ miles this morning, exiting the track before the rains hit. Moisture is the last thing this track needs, but Mother Nature doesn't read the Form.
Saturday, Feb. 2
Rain leaves the already deep and dicey Gulfstream Park track a total mess. World-class horses struggle to post times that the game's lowest-level runners typically accomplish. Gulfstream Park's Hutcheson Stakes stops the clock in the slowest time ever for the 7-furlong Derby prep as Saarland's stablemate, Maybry's Boy, struggles to finish fourth as the 6-to-5 betting favorite. The late-running grey spins his wheels in the quicksand to no avail. Immediately after the race, assistant trainer Robbie Medina says that McGaughey has no intentions of running Saarland over this track in the Fountain of Youth. "It looked like the horses were running in place," Medina says. "Shug said 'I can't send him out there and run a mile-and-a-sixteenth off of just workouts on a track this deep." Maybry's Boy, who already started twice at the meet, will head to the Fountain of Youth instead.
Sunday, Feb. 3
McGaughey originally planned a five-furlong workout for Saarland this morning, but opts to wait for a dryer racetrack. It's a pattern that plagues many of the South Florida trainers this spring. Grey Beard, a horse Maybry's Boy could face in the Fountain of Youth, skipped his scheduled Saturday workout in favor of today. Trainer Graham Motion reportedly is upset having to take his horse off the battle plan. It's a game of adapt and overcome, and Grey Beard drills five furlongs on a wet and heavy track in 1:03. Saarland, meanwhile, gallops 1 ½ miles after McGaughey's audible.
Monday, Feb. 4
It's a manic Monday around Barn 14. Most of McGaughey's big horses are on the track this morning for serious workouts, including Saarland. The star sophomore drills a half-mile in :49-3/5 over a drying and slow track. It's perhaps his best drill since arriving in Florida. The time is equal to Grade 1-winning stablemate Traditionally and a length faster than the barn's best older mare, Cat Cay. The extra day off appears to have provided no ring rust for Saarland, who now may be aimed for a seven-furlong allowance race in the next few weeks. "The last week or so, he's really looking better, getting a little heavier and sharper," Medina says. "He worked very easy and didn't get tired." Following the workout, McGaughey heads off on a getaway trip to Augusta, GA. There, he'll play a few rounds of golf with Dinny Phipps, brother of Saarland's owner, Cynthia Phipps. "He'll either come back happy because he played well or he'll be quitting golf again," Medina jokes. "He quits golf every-other week."
Let there be hype
Even for a humble, businesslike guy like Shug McGaughey, the attention that a trio of Triple Crown contenders can create is a welcome addition to the barn. While he's not the media-hound-type of trainer like Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas, McGaughey knows that when people are talking about you, it means you've got something to talk about in your stable.
"The attention is a good thing, I'd say, better than a negative," McGaughey concedes. "I'm glad I've got Saarland. I'm glad I've got Maybry's Boy and D'Coach. I like to have them held in high esteem. I have to admit, I was prepared for it. I got a little tip from a friend who went to Las Vegas in December and told me that the casino he went to had Saarland second choice (in the future books)."
As of Jan. 30, Bally's Las Vegas continues to hold Saarland in high regard. He's currently fourth choice at 8-to-1 odds. The people who make the betting lines for a living rank only Johannesburg, Repent and Siphonic (the one-two-three finishers in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile) at lower odds. The trio is at 6-to-1.
As Saarland approaches his 3-year-old debut, McGaughey knows that with each big effort the attention will increase. But the trainer also knows that it won't take a series of prep-race wins to get Saarland where he needs to go. A decent effort that falls short of victory now could go a long way in the future.
"That would be promising to me," he says. "I know what the ultimate goal is, and that's for him to wake up that Saturday morning on May 4 and run the biggest race of his life."