Kiaran McLaughlin stood in front of the big-screen television in the Saratoga clubhouse, peering up as his charge Abraaj threatened to drift out of sight as the field for the Grade II Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap hit the three-eighths pole.
‘This isn’t going according to plan,’ he thought to himself. In a heavy drive, jockey Alan Garcia echoed those same sentiments.
Shadwell Stable’s Abraaj was going nowhere as the field approached the far turn before putting things together in deep stretch to draw off by 2 1/2 lengths, punching his ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint Oct. 25 at Santa Anita.
Eighth and last in the 2007 Vanderbilt, Abraaj took the rest of the season off to let the wear and tear of the racetrack run its course.
“We had to stop on him after last year’s race when his ankles flared up a little bit and he just needed some time off,” McLaughlin said. “It did him a world of good, we were able to give him a break and bring him back this year. During the time off he just filled into a really nice horse.”
Did he ever.
Abraaj made his 2008 debut in an allowance/optional claimer at Belmont Park May 8, floating like a speedboat over the muddy track en route to a 6-length victory. McLaughlin thought of his options and elected to point the son of Carson City to the Grade II True North on the Belmont Stakes undercard. Abraaj rewarded his trainer with a close third to division leader Benny The Bull. The half-length loss had McLaughlin thinking big.
With the Shadwell-owned Lucky Island sitting out the Vanderbilt to await the Grade I Forego at the end of the meet, Abraaj had the 6-furlong stakes all to himself – in terms of intra-stable competition anyway.
The Vanderbilt lost morning-line favorite and potential pace player Bustin Stones early Saturday morning when trainer Bruce Levine scratched him with a bruised foot. But with Black Seventeen and Sammarco in the field, the pace still promised to be heated.
And it was. Sammarco (Channing Hill) out-broke the gate and bounded clear in the first few steps while Abraaj was taken in hand and allowed to lope along in fourth. California speedball Black Seventeen engaged Sammarco shortly thereafter and pressed the front-runner through a quarter in 22.06 seconds.
Meanwhile, Abraaj looked like he was running on the beach barefoot. Struggling to keep up as the field passed the three-eighths pole, the 5-year-old seemed relegated to also-ran status. Garcia pumped and drove while trying to coax a response from the 8-5 favorite. What seemed a futile effort brightened as the field sped to the stretch. When the half-mile went in 44.57 seconds, suddenly things didn’t seem so bleak.
“When he was beginning to ask him as they hit the three-eighths pole I was a little worried,” McLaughlin said. “But when he hit the quarter pole and I saw how hard the leaders were running I was actually OK.”
As was Abraaj. Garcia guided him to the outside for a clear run and set his sights on Sammarco, fresh off a maiden win and the longest shot on the board at 21-1. The leader dispatched of Black Seventeen and surged clear to a 2-length lead as he hit the final furlong. First Defence (Javier Castellano), who stalked in third the entire way, split horses and arrived on the scene, looming a late danger.
Team McLaughlin, 15-something strong, went silent as the camera focused on a clear Sammarco, a poised First Defence, and a drifting Abraaj who ventured out of the picture.
One-one thousand. Two-one thousand. Three-one thousand. Four-one thousand. Five-one thousand.
Cue the band.
Garcia steered Abraaj in a few paths, the duo reappeared, and the McLaughlins rose in a crescendo that would make an orchestra at SPAC jealous.
Abraaj gained with every stride on Sammarco. Inhaling the Spa stretch late, Abraaj blew clear of First Defence, who came up wanting after chasing the quick splits early. Sammarco salvaged third, a nose ahead of Californian Thor’s Echo.
Garcia, like McLaughlin, went through a myriad of emotions during the Vanderbilt’s 6 furlongs in 1:10.23.
“The first part he was struggling to pick up the track and I was pushing on him and it didn’t look like it was going to be his day,” Garcia said. “But after that, when he got hold of the track, he really took off. Once he got going I thought the leaders were going to come back to me because I knew they went pretty fast for the first quarter.”
McLaughlin left the winner’s circle and headed to the trustees’ room, pondering the newfound options with his pair of talented sprinters.
“It’s nice to have a couple of good sprinters in the barn for the same owner. We can go every other race with them,” the trainer said. “He is Breeders’ Cup eligible, right?”
He is now.