LOUISVILLE — He might be a licensed Thoroughbred trainer, but Kiaran McLaughlin actually is a makeover artist.
That's how the 54-year-old Lexington native earned his way into his fifth Kentucky Derby, with Wood Memorial winner Frosted.
After Frosted's baffling fourth-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, a Derby prep in which the Godolphin-owned horse slowed noticeably in the stretch, McLaughlin decided to change everything except the horse.
"We don't have horses stop that way," McLaughlin said Thursday morning at his barn near Longfield Avenue. "We didn't know what happened."
After all, up to that point the son of Tapit had been making strong strides on the Derby trail. After breaking his maiden at Aqueduct in October, Frosted finished second in the Remsen and second in the Holy Bull leading up to the Fountain of Youth.
So at the top of the Gulfstream stretch, McLaughlin thought his horse was home free only to watch in disbelief as three closers galloped by.
A scope of the horse showed no physical problems, but McLaughlin thought perhaps Frosted displaced his soft palate, making it difficult to breathe. He commissioned a minor medical procedure, performed in the stall, that altered the horse's muscular structure to make it more difficult to displace.
McLaughlin also changed Frosted's training procedures, working the horse in company. Plus, he altered Frosted's blinkers.
"The biggest thing we did was change tracks," said McLaughlin, who opted to skip the Florida Derby and send Frosted to New York for the Wood Memorial. "Gulfstream was a very demanding track."
For McLaughlin personally, however, the hardest thing he did was change jockeys. Irad Ortiz is his regular rider. But if McLaughlin was going to turn everything upside down, he knew he was going to have to switch riders.
"We didn't want to change the owner or the trainer, so we started with the jockey," he joked Thursday, but admitted, "It was tough, really tough. Irad was great about it. He's a classy kid. I saw him after the Wood and I said, 'I'm sorry' and he said, 'No. You did the right thing. You're in the winner's circle.'"
Needing to finish first or second in the Wood to earn enough points to make the Derby field, Frosted broke poorly but settled quickly under jockey Joel Rosario and ran down Tencendur in the stretch to win by 2 lengths and punch his ticket to Louisville.
"All the changes all came together," McLaughlin said.
Before graduating from Lafayette High School in 1978, McLaughlin saw his first Derby from atop a barn on the Churchill backside. After working under several trainers, including D. Wayne Lukas, McLaughlin spent 10 years as a trainer in the United Arab Emirates.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998, McLaughlin returned to the United States full-time in 2003. Closing Argument, a 71-1 shot who finished second to Giacomo in 2005, was his first Derby horse. A year later, he trained Jazil to a fourth-place Derby finish before the pride of Shadwell Farm won the Belmont.
Though successful everywhere else, McLaughlin hasn't had much Derby luck since — 11th with Soldat in 2011 and 12th with Alpha in 2012. Neither has Godolphin, the Maktoum family's racing stable, which has sent eight starters to the Derby gate without a victory. Its best finish was with China Visit, sixth in 2000.
"The other 19 Derby owners deserve to win, but no one is more deserving than Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum," McLaughlin said. "He's so passionate about the sport. Nobody has done more for the game than him."
Frosted has a legitimate chance Saturday. He trained well before the Wood. His closing style could fit a race that on paper appears to have lots of pace. In seven races, Frosted has two wins and four seconds. His one finish out of the money prompted the McLaughlin makeover.
"This is a very strong field," McLaughlin said. "But this is also my strongest chance."