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 third week of 2002.
Tuesday, Jan. 15
The third week of Saarland's sophomore season will provide a glimpse of his future competition. Saturday's Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park gives the Florida-based 3-year-olds a major prep for the spring's big races. In California, early Kentucky Derby favorite Siphonic makes his seasonal debut in the Santa Catalina. Meanwhile, the big horse in Barn 14 begins to stretch and flex this week as he awaits next month's Fountain of Youth Stakes. Under warming temperatures, Saarland gallops 1-1/2 miles this morning with no glitches.
Wednesday, Jan. 16
The calendar reads exactly one month until the Fountain of Youth. Trainer Shug McGaughey opts to give Saarland his first five-furlong workout of the year. The trainer times him this morning in 1:03 breezing. Problem is, official track clockers fail to catch the colt's first furlong with their watches. Officially, Gulfstream Park clockers credit Saarland with a four-furlong (half-mile) move in :49-2/5 breezing. His time is 2-1/5 seconds (equivalent to 11 lengths) faster than his previous two workouts at the distance. "Times don't mean much to me right now," McGaughey says. "He doesn't need to be going five-eighths in :59. If I wanted him to, he could. It's not time for that. We just want to continue putting a bottom into him." McGaughey carries a reputation as a conservative conditioner, in style and words. Rest assured, he's pleased with Saarland's work. "He worked fine and really finished up fine," McGaughey affirms.
Thursday, Jan. 17
Saarland bounces back from Wednesday's big workout full of himself. He walks 45 minutes under tack (with exercise rider Juice Krajewski aboard) inside Barn 14. "He's feeling good," Krajewski said. "He was just scooting around there today." Saarland appears no worse for the wear, the barn reports, after logging his fourth major workout since arriving in Florida. He has officially logged four-furlong drills on Dec. 31, Jan. 6, Jan. 11 and Jan. 16.
Friday, Jan. 18
Back to the track, Saarland gallops his standard 1 ½ miles on a hazy and humid Miami-area morning. Meanwhile, Barn 14 continues to be Gulfstream Park's hottest venue. McGaughey's star filly Cat Cay finishes second in the Grade 3 First Lady Handicap. The stable now has finished in the money with six of its first seven starters at the meeting with three wins. Talk about efficiency.
Saturday, Jan. 19
Saarland wraps up his morning training with a 1-1/2 mile gallop and then retires to Stall 55 after a bath. Today, the Kentucky Derby hopeful can kick back and watch his peers roll toward the roses. At Gulfstream, Booklet goes wire-to-wire to win the Holy Bull Stakes. He and runner-up Harlan's Holiday are now on track for a showdown with Saarland in the Fountain of Youth. "I think we stack up against that kind of field," assistant trainer Robbie Medina says. "Nothing has scared us away." Meanwhile in California, early Derby favorite Siphonic stumbles badly at the start of the Santa Catalina and finishes second to Labamta Babe. Siphonic proves that one bad step can cost a horse in this rugged road to Louisville.
Sunday, Jan. 20
On the eve of his second major workout of the week, Saarland gallops 1 ½ miles around the Gulfstream oval this morning. Stablemate Traditionally, one of the game's top older horses, breezes a half-mile today in :49, which may provide an interesting barometer for Saarland's workout tomorrow. The track has begun showing its old reputation of favoring front-running speed horses, ala Booklet's win in yesterday's Holy Bull. For a stretch-running closer like Saarland, that's not the best of news. Track biases change, though, and there's a lot of dirt to fly between now and the Fountain of Youth.
Monday, Jan. 21
Holiday racing comes to Gulfstream Park today, but be sure that Saarland doesn't have banker's hours. The big colt logs his fifth major workout in Florida this morning, and second of the week. Under sultry temperatures and sunshine, Saarland completes the half-mile breeze in :49-3/5, once again displaying his improved speed and fitness. He gallops out an extra furlong in :12, the way a trainer likes to see his horse finish a drill. Today's workout begins at 7:20 a.m. after the track is retooled. The track gets an even surface after harrows scrape the dirt, and many trainers like to put in serous workouts over the best playing field possible. Tracks typically harrow their surface once or twice each morning, during what is known as a renovation break.
No pressure for McGaughey
A dozen years ago, trainer Shug McGaughey blew out of Florida with the Kentucky Derby favorite. New Yorkers clamored for their "big horse", Easy Goer, to return to the Big Apple before trampling the field in the Kentucky Derby. He cruised to victory in the Gotham and Wood Memorial and was bound for the roses.
Then something happened on the way to certainty. Something by the name of Sunday Silence. Twice Easy Goer chased him in the Derby and Preakness, twice he was second best. In the Belmont Stakes, the son of Alydar romped with a win so easy it brought back visions of another famous chestnut -- Secretariat. Easy Goer proved his supporters were right all along.
Fast forward to 2002. Shug McGaughey's back in the high life again. He trains a leading Derby contender in Saarland, but this time around, the pressure's off. The veteran conditioner is older, wiser and more relaxed.
"I was 38 back then," McGaughey says, "I'm 51 now. There's been a lot of water under this old bridge. There was a lot more pressure on me with Easy Goer than Saarland, though. Easy Goer was supposed to win."
As for mapping out his spring season, Saarland's schedule could be similar to Easy Goer's in that he'll race just once at Gulfstream Park. After the Fountain of Youth, McGaughey may send this show on the road.
"Maybe the Louisiana Derby/Wood Memorial route would be the best bet," he said. "Let's see how this track (Gulfstream Park) plays early in the meet. I kind of like the idea of running bigger horses on the bigger turns (at Fair Grounds and Aqueduct)."
While Saarland may not be the second coming of Easy Goer, the jury is out on just how good he can be. McGaughey won't be surprised by any of his success, however.
"I liked him from Day One," McGaughey said, recalling how sharp the colt looked as a young 2-year-old last spring at this time. "I saw him all winter at Palm Beach Downs and I knew what was there. He's still green, though, still learning. If he's as good as we hope and think he can be, one of these days he'll wake up and explode."
And, if he does, the first Saturday in May would be the opportune time.