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Five jumps from the wire, another ignored horse, 50-1 shot Giacomo, surged past Closing Argument on the outside to take the 131st Derby, which will be remembered more for its record-setting exotic playoffs than its finish. Not for McLaughlin. "I was watching the race on TV with my son to get the best view, because the box area was really crowded," McLaughlin said five days later. "I could see him all the way, and at the half-mile pole, I could see that Cornelio [Velasquez] had horse.
"When he angled out at the quarter pole and took the lead, I really thought we were going to win. I was in shock because it was the Derby.
"I was happy he finished second, and then I thought, 'God damn, we almost won the Kentucky Derby.' "
Closing Argument fell short by only half a length, and you could make a case that he ran better than anybody. He was at least four-wide throughout the 1? miles and didn't pack it in despite chasing an insanely quick pace. After a quarter in a blazing 22.28 seconds, Closing Argument was fifth, only about two lengths behind the kamikaze rabbit Spanish Chestnut, despite breaking from post 18, bobbling at the start and entering the turn nine wide. Of the first five finishers, he was the only one near the lead during the first mile.
"I think my horse tried very hard," Velasquez said. "He was in perfect condition and ran a big race."
Entering the Derby, Closing Argument's career moment came when he handed High Fly his first defeat in the Holy Bull Stakes Feb. 5 at Gulfstream. Closing Argument didn't run again until 2? months later at Keeneland, when he finished a nondescript third, nine lengths behind Bandini, in the Blue Grass Stakes. It was considered by far the deepest of the Derby preps, but no one rated Closing Argument highly before or after it. His pedigree (by Successful Appeal out of a Mr. Greeley mare) didn't scream 1? miles, and he was trying to become only the second horse since 1947 to win the Derby off only two preps as a 3-year-old. Which is why he went off at 71-1 and helped produce lottery payoffs in the trifecta and superfecta. "He ran great," McLaughlin said. "It was the thrill of a lifetime for an eighth of a mile. He's one hell of a horse who might now start getting some respect."
For someone who grew up in Lexington, the heart of the Bluegrass Country, and knew at age 12 that he wanted to train thoroughbreds, winning the Derby would mean everything.
"There were a few moments there when I thought we were going to win," McLaughlin said. "At the eighth pole, when we had the lead, I got very excited, but I didn't see Mike Smith coming [on Giacomo]. The horse leading at the eighth pole usually wins the Derby."
Having the ultimate prize snatched away near the finish might anger and depress many horse lifers, but McLaughlin copes with an infinitely bigger setback every day. In October 1998, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an incurable and often debilitating disease. Four months later, while training for Sheikh Mohammed in Dubai, he suffered a severe attack that caused blurred vision and forced him to walk with a cane. He's kept MS under control with a self-administered daily injection of the drug Copaxone, and his only outward symptom is a slight limp. McLaughlin said he hasn't had a major flareup since he began taking the medication.
He said he's living his dream with his wife, Letty, children Erin, 14, and Ryan, 11, and a barn with about 70 promising horses.
"Hopefully, in the future I'll have a big enough stable," he said, "with 20 or 30 2-year-olds to go back to the Derby."
Now his focus is on his second trip to the Preakness, where he ran eighth with longshot Allied Forces in 1996. D. Wayne Lukas, whom McLaughlin assisted from 1985-92, has won the Derby sequel five times, so McLaughlin sought out his old boss for advice.
"I said, 'Coach, I need some coaching about when to arrive for the Preakness,' '' said McLaughlin, who was told there was no need to ship to Pimlico more than a few days before the race.
"It was good to work for Wayne. He was a great mentor for me."
Lukas will be 70 in September, and his unprecedented run at the top of the game finally appears over. Like another former Lukas assistant, 2004 Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher, McLaughlin's time may be coming, too. If Closing Argument moves forward off his big effort in Louisville, McLaughlin may win his first classic before Pletcher does.
"The time of the Derby [2:02.75] wasn't real fast, and the Ragozin sheet number wasn't very fast, either," McLaughlin said. "But for the first three it was a very good race, and I hope we run well at Pimlico."