- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2005

BALTIMORE — As the trainer of Closing Argument, Kiaran McLaughlin brings to the Preakness Stakes years of experience rooted in the dreams of a child who wrote in a seventh-grade essay how he planned to saddle a winner in the Kentucky Derby one day.

It nearly happened two weeks ago at Churchill Downs. Closing Argument, a 71-1 long shot, led down the stretch before finishing second to Giacomo by a half-length. The trip was so impressive that McLaughlin’s horse, once an afterthought in the public mind, is among the Preakness favorites.

McLaughlin brings something else, something he carries around in his “hip pocket,” as he likes to say. He knows it’s there, but he doesn’t think about it much, except in the evening when he has to inject himself in his stomach or an arm or a leg or his back or buttocks. Sometimes his wife Letty helps.

McLaughlin, 44, has multiple sclerosis. In October 1998, while at home in Garden City, N.Y., he awoke in the middle of the night with a scary, searing pain in his neck and shoulder. A heart attack was suspected, but that wasn’t it. A doctor told him it was probably a pinched nerve. Just to be sure, he scheduled an MRI. The result indicated the possibility of MS, but it wasn’t definite. A visit to the Mayo Clinic confirmed it.

His reaction was typical to most people who get awful news.

“I was really down,” McLaughlin said. “When I look back on it, I guess I was in a state of depression. I was very shaken up by the whole thing. I didn’t want to believe it.”

Physically, McLaughlin felt fine, for the most part. He suffered few symptoms. He played golf and tried to live life as before. But while working in Dubai for the Maktoum family, a big name in international racing, the MS unleashed an attack.

“It was scary,” he said. “I didn’t know what was happening. It’s like you have an extension cord and you cut into it with a lawnmower. The spinal cord was sending weird signals to the rest of the body. I wasn’t able to walk well. I had to use a cane. I had blurred vision, and my arm was numb.”

That was in February 1999. Today, except for a subtle limp and slight numbness in his right arm, McLaughlin says he feels good, thanks to daily injections of the drug Copaxone. He frequently walks two miles a day. He has started speaking more to spread MS awareness, and he is working with his brother Pete, a wine and liquor wholesaler, to set up a donation and marketing deal with a bourbon manufacturer, with the proceeds going to help to fight MS.

“I’m very fortunate ,and I live a pretty normal life right now,” McLaughlin said. “Most people with MS aren’t as lucky as I am. I feel bad for them. I have a pretty mild case right now.”

MS patients are told to avoid as much stress and strain as possible. This might seem impossible in McLaughlin’s case, except he doesn’t see it that way.

“I feel like I’m living my dream, getting up and going to work and doing what I want to do,” he said. “It’s not that strenuous. Some people have to wake up at 5 in the morning and go into the city and come back at 8 at night.”

McLaughlin wakes up at 5 or earlier, but rather than commute to some dreary, mind-numbing job, he travels to where he feels most at home. The backstretch is a destination with a course he plotted from an early age. Although he now lives near his home base of Belmont Park with Letty and their two children, McLaughlin is a pure Kentuckian. He grew up in Lexington, the heart of bluegrass and thoroughbred country. His parents, Raymond and Judy McLaughlin, emigrated from Northern Ireland in 1958 because Raymond had a cousin who owned a farm in the area.

At the time, Judy was pregnant with their oldest child, Sean. Six more kids followed in quick succession. Sean is 46, and Neal, the youngest, who works as an assistant to Kiaran, is 36.

“My mother stayed in maternity clothes for 10 years,” said Pete McLaughlin, who is a year older than Kiaran.

Kiaran McLaughlin always was transfixed by the world of thoroughbreds. He and Pete would ride their bikes as kids to the famed Keeneland racetrack. The epiphany occurred when Kiaran was 12. Perched on a barn at Churchill, he watched Secretariat blaze to glory in the 1973 Kentucky Derby. That’s when he knew. He idolized the trainer, Charlie Whittingham, writing in his essay how he would grow up to emulate him.

McLaughlin attended the University of Kentucky mainly, he said, to appease his parents. He buried his nose in the Daily Racing Form instead of his textbooks, so it was no surprise when, after two semesters, he announced he was leaving school to follow his dream. “It was a bit scary,” Raymond McLaughlin said.

Because his son was going out into the world without a formal education?

“No,” he said. “Because I gave him my car. I gave him my car, and he headed out into the wild blue yonder.”

That turned out to be Oklahoma and the start of McLaughlin’s career. He eventually caught the eye of renowned trainer D. Wayne Lukas. They met at Chicago’s Arlington Park when someone put one of Lukas’ stakes horses in a barn where McLaughlin and Letty were working.

“In the three days I was there, I watched him and his wife work the shed,” Lukas said. “And when I left, I shook hands with him, and I said, ‘I enjoyed being around the barn with you, and if you ever decide to change jobs, you can get one with me.’ And he called me a little while later. I’ve never hired anybody from a resume.”

McLaughlin worked for Lukas for seven years before going out on his own in 1992. Known as a tough, detail-oriented taskmaster who even inspects his employees’ penmanship, Lukas has fired and rehired many of his assistants. Not McLaughlin, though.

“I had no doubt he’d be good,” said Lukas, whose Going Wild runs today in the Preakness. “He was good from Day 1. He was a great employee. He’s a great friend. What you’ve got to understand about Kiaran is that he’s been around and handled a lot of good horses. I gave him a lot of responsibility. I gave him the ability to use his own initiative and be creative in a lot of ways. All I did was nudge him here and there. Kiaran was gonna be successful whether he ran into me or not.”

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