Switch back to dirt may pan out for McLaughlin’s Soldat

Three weeks ago, 50-year-old trainer Kiaran McLaughlin shaved off the mustache that he had sported f

Kiaran McLaughlin no longer has any turf on his upper lip.

Three weeks ago, the 50-year-old trainer shaved off the mustache that he had sported for all of his adult life.

“It wasn’t a rally hat or anything, I just did it,” he said with a laugh on Thursday morning.

Considerably more thought was put into the decision to remove turf from the life of his Kentucky Derby prospect Soldat, who is 12-1 on the morning line for Saturday’s 137th Run for the Roses.

After winning the Grade III With Antic­ipation on the Saratoga Race Course grass, Soldat stayed on the turf for the rest of his 2-year-old season, with a second in the Pilgrim and a second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Churchill Downs.

The fact is, Soldat showed himself to be good enough to run well on a variety of surfaces, and with the potential for a run at the Triple Crown races, instead of the spotty schedule of 3-year-old grass stakes, he was re-introduced to dirt right out of the gate this season.

“In the back of our mind, we have to try the dirt again, because he was second twice on it,” McLaughlin said. “It’s not like he hated it. They’re only 3 once, let’s see if he could handle the dirt again. That’s why we went back again in January.”

Soldat will break from post No. 17, dir­ectly inside of Uncle Mo, assuming the 2010 2-year-old champion runs.

Uncle Mo’s camp hedged on whether their colt, who has been treated for a gastrointestinal bug that may have comp­romised him in the Wood Memorial, will scratch from the Derby.

He has been treated with antibiotics and was due for another round of tests on Thursday. Owner Mike Repole said that the decision to run would be made late Thursday or this morning.

Soldat, in the meantime, had an easy gallop on the track during the 8:30 a.m. training slot designated for Kentucky Derby and Oaks runners.

One of seven Derby entrants who raced at Saratoga last year, including Uncle Mo, Stay Thirsty, Mucho Macho Man, Brilliant Speed, Derby Kitten and Santiva, Soldat started his career with runner-up finishes at Belmont Park and Saratoga, both at 51⁄2 furlongs on the dirt, then pulled off the rare feat of breaking his maiden in a graded-stakes race — and on the grass, no less.

He was three lengths ahead of Powhatan County in the mile-and-a-sixteenth With Anticipation.

“We were fortunate enough to be at Saratoga, where you can work on the turf,” McLaughlin said. “He worked lights out on the turf. At the time that we went to the turf, maybe he wanted the distance, because he was a very fit horse and never missed any days. He wanted farther than five-eighths on the dirt. So it was a combination. At that time in their life, a maiden race could be as equally tough as the graded stake.”

Soldat, who is owned by Harvey Clarke, Craig Robertson, Paul Braverman and Namcook Stable, is by War Front, whom McLaughlin trained as a 2-year-old.

War Front was an accomplished sprinter who won the 2006 A.G. Vanderbilt at Saratoga.

His first crop also includes The Factor and Summer Soiree, who is the 5-1 co-fourth choice in today’s Kentucky Oaks.

“War Front was a beautiful mover,” McLaughlin said. “I had nicknamed him “The Franchise” horse as a 2-year-old, to his owner Joe Allen. He was a beautiful mover, great mind. War Front was a little blockier, a little bit more powerful than him. He’s [Soldat] a little bit lighter-framed horse, but has a great mind and moves great.”

Besides getting Soldat, who will have regular rider Alan Garcia in the saddle, back on dirt this season, McLaughlin also stretched him out in distance.

All of his 2011 races have been at nine furlongs, an allowance win at Gulfstream Park by almost 11 lengths on a sloppy track, a two-length win over Gourmet Dinner in the Fountain of Youth and a clunker in the Florida Derby, fifth by 101⁄4 lengths behind Derby morning-line favorite Dialed In.

The Florida Derby was supposed to be Soldat’s big test to see if he could handle getting dirt kicked in his face, and although many gave him a failing grade, McLaughlin chose to call it “incomplete.”

“I just throw it out,” he said. “I just know that everything went wrong. He didn’t like it inside, and he had a lot of dirt in his trachea when we scoped him out after the race. Everything went wrong. It was a very hot day, dry. I asked Alan to try to get him off the inside somewhere in the race, and he never could, so it was the worst spot to be. We were in a bad spot into the first turn. It comes up quick, and we were fifth and stayed there.”

Whether Uncle Mo runs or not, McLaughlin wants to see Garcia get Soldat out of the gate quickly so that he can get into a good stalking position behind front-runners like Shackleford.

“It’s totally different kickback here,” he said. “The Gulfstream Park track was four inches deep, it was deep and dry that day because it was 90 degrees. Here, this is a clay base, they don’t go in two inches, so it’s a totally different kickback, and we’re not concerned about it, being out in the clear [in the 17 post].

“We’re a little concerned for traffic reasons. It would be different if we had the one, two, three or four. But we’re out in the clear, and it’s a long way into the first turn. At Gulfstream, it’s an eighth of a mile, and you turn left. Here, we have 21⁄2, three furlongs to get to the first turn, so we’ll work it out.”

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