There’s nothing like a horse who is a top Derby candidate for the health of his team

| March 2, 2011

The impressive victory by Soldat in Gulstream Park’s Fountain of Youth placed the rapidly improving colt on the short list of major contenders for the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. The Derby is a little more than two months down the road.

Soldat, the word for “soldier” in German, Dutch and other languages, is a well-named son of War Front who has displayed remarkable versatility in his brief career.

He is a stakes winner on grass and was runner-up to Pluck in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs. He dominated a very good allowance field on the slop at Gulfstream Park, winning by more than 10 lengths, and then disposed of the highly regarded To Honor and Serve in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth.

Dry dirt

The latter was his first race over a dry dirt course and, while he won on the lead, there is little question jockey Alan Garcia could have rated the talented colt just off the lead if that tactical approach had been required.

Soldat appears to be the complete package and a major threat to unbeaten champion Uncle Mo, the early Derby favorite who is nearing his 2011 debut, and any other major contenders that might arise on the road to Kentucky Derby 137.

The colt also looms as one of the better stories in Derby 137 because of his trainer. Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin, another product of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ school for trainers, just missed winning the Kentucky Derby in 2005 when his 71-1 shot Closing Argument had the lead in deep stretch, but ultimately finished second to 50-1 shot Giacomo.

A terrific trainer

McLaughlin, along with being one of the nicest and most accessible people in American Thoroughbred racing, is a terrific trainer who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2006 with Invasor and appears to be on his way to a spectacular 2010 with a string of horses that includes an American stable for Dubai-based power Darley.

But McLaughlin is an inspiration on another front. He was awakened early one morning in October, 1998 with a sharp pain in his shoulder – one so severe that he feared he might be suffering a heart attack. He drove himself to the hospital, where that possibility was ruled out. But later tests revealed the cause of that pain.

Battles MS

McLaughlin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

The disease has unpredictable effects, but after a brief period of initial depression following his diagnosis, McLaughlin has pushed forward. He remains very open about life with MS.

“I have MS in my hip pocket for now and feel fortunate for doing so well,” McLaughlin said on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society website ( “But I know it can be scary because of the unknown. For that reason I try to be as open as I can about living with MS and being positive and pro-active in my life.”

Another trainer who will be easy to cheer for if her horse gets to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May is Kathleen Ritvo. She trains Mucho Macho Man, the winner of the recent Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds.

Heart Transplant

The Florida-based Ritvo is looking forward to a bid for the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown with her colt after undergoing a heart transplant in 2008.

Ritvo suffered from cardiomyopathy, a severe deterioration of the heart muscle. One of her brothers, Louis Petro, was a former jockey who died from complications of that ailment in 1996. After the need for a new heart was determined, Ritvo spent more than six months awaiting a donor heart – much of that time in the hospital. The donor organ finally became available in November.

After her surgery, her doctors told her she might not have lasted another week without the heart.

Within six months, Ritvo was back at work on the track. Now the 41-year-old mother of two looks down her shedrow each morning and sees the head of Mucho Macho Man, a strong contender for Kentucky Derby 137, sticking out of his stall.

“The doctors advised me not to return to working at the track at all following my surgery,” Ritvo told the Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch in February. “But I figured I was already so close to dying that every day I’m alive now is a bonus, and I’m going to do what makes me happy. And besides, it does the heart good to have a horse like him.”

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” Winston Churchill once said. His quote is often repeated by those whose lives are touched by those magnificent animals in any way.

The lives of Kiaran McLaughlin and Kathy Ritvo provide wonderful testament to the clear truth in Churchill’s words. It would be a wonderful thing if Churchill’s thought is quoted again on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, with either Ritvo, with Mucho Macho Man, or McLaughlin, with Soldat, in the winner’s circle and surrounded by the scent of roses after the running of Kentucky Derby 137.

The top 10

Here’s the Asher Kentucky Derby Top 10 after last week’s Fountain of Youth:

  1. Dialed In
  2. Uncle Mo
  3. Soldat
  4. Jaycito
  5. To Honor and Serve
  6. Mucho Macho Man
  7. Brethren
  8. Sway Away
  9. The Factor
  10. Gourmet Dinner

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