Winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) would undoubtedly be a career highlight for any trainer, and that is no different for Ken McPeek, who will saddle Noble's Promise May 1 for the Chasing Dreams Stable racing partnership.
But seeing the ease with which McPeek carries himself around his barn at Churchill Downs, one gets the impression that even if Noble’s Promise should come away with the roses, it would not be a life changing event for a man who at the age of 47 has already accomplished more than most horsemen could ever dream. And being that he is still in the prime of his career, there is no added pressure to win Derby 136.
“It’s a pleasure to be in this position and I’m not ever going to take it for granted,” said McPeek. “Some day we hope we get one with our name on it, but at the same time it’s up to a higher power. All we can do is get them ready and then it’s up to the horse and the rider.”
McPeek, who took his trainer’s license out in 1985 with his father, Ron, as his first client, began tasting success in the early 1990s. His first major horse was Tejano Run, a $20,000 yearling who won a pair of graded stakes as a juvenile and went on to finish runner-up in the 1995 Kentucky Derby.
In 2002, McPeek had his breakout year, saddling morning-line favorite Harlan’s Holiday in the 2002 Derby. Though the colt finished seventh in that race and was taken away from him just before the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), McPeek had the last laugh when Sarava pulled off a shocking 70-1 victory in the last leg of the Triple Crown, earning the trainer a classic win before the age of 40.
“Tejano Run was great. I would have been the third youngest in the history of the game if he had won,” said McPeek, who will send out his fourth Derby starter in 2010. “That gave me a taste of what it was like.
“After Sarava, I remember telling Wayne Lukas I was really pleased to win a classic before I was 40—I was 39 at the time. Then he reminded me that he had won 13 and I had only had one. But I reminded him that he was almost 70 and I wasn’t.
“Seriously though, I feel very fortunate. And it’s nice being in this race, especially because it’s so close to home.”
A native of Lexington, McPeek will have “hundreds” of friends and family on hand when Noble’s Promise attempts to write his name in the record books. The trainer seems to relish having those close to him on hand at Churchill to share in the Derby experience.
“It’s nice to have them here,” said McPeek, whose other claim to fame came as a bloodstock agent in 2005 when he signed the $57,000 yearling ticket for eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin. “Tickets are really the only hassle, but other than that it’s great.
“For the horse, we’re fortunate because he’s trained here all of his life. That’s a nice advantage to have. I think he’s going to run very well. For me, there are distractions, but I’m also on my home turf. I don’t have to come in from California like some.”
And if Noble’s Promise should pull off the upset win, what would it do for him?
“I don’t envision my life changing a whole lot whether I win or lose,” said McPeek, who owns 115-acre Magdalena Farm near Lexington with his wife, Sue. In 2009, McPeek, who trains his horses at the farm, finished in the top 20 among the nation’s purse earners with $4.9 million.
“I have friends who have won the Derby before, Carl Nafzger and John Ward—both local guys—and I know they don’t do anything different than they did before they won. They still get up and put their pants on one leg at a time. And that’s what I’m going to do win, lose, or draw.”