The sign on the outside of barn 14 at Churchill Downs still bears the logo of trainer Ken McPeek. The screens adorned with that logo hang at the entrance to every stall in the barn. But Friday was a day of change in that barn because McPeek has formally bowed out of training to focus on bloodstock matters. The trainer who is running things in McPeek's old barn is Helen Pitts. The 31-year-old Maryland native, a key assistant to McPeek for the past five years, expects to have up to 40 horses in her care now that she has removed the word "assistant" from her title. The first horse she officially saddled as a trainer was Stevestan Stable's 3-year-old filly Cat Quatorze, who won Friday's ninth race as the 7-5 favorite in a 1 1/8-mile allowance event. The race was originally scheduled for the turf course but was moved to the main track, reducing the field to five. Cat Quatorze, ridden by Gary Stevens, grabbed the lead at the start and cruised to a 12-length victory."I'm thankful and relieved that it's over," said Pitts in the winner's circle. "I was nervous coming over with the horse. It's just different when you're listed as the trainer.
Reminded that she is now a perfect one-for-one in her career Pitts teased, "Maybe I should just retire now with a perfect record." Earlier in the day, Pitts said she is aware she has a "phenomenal" opportunity in her grasp. Stars from McPeek's stable that will remain in her care include grade I winning 4-year-old turf star Prince Arch, who handed 2004 turf champion Kitten's Joy one of his two defeats at three in Churchill Downs' Jefferson Cup (gr. IIIT). She also has a pair of rising 3-year-old turf stars in Edgewood winner Sweet Talker and Exceptional Ride. "Those should be fun," said Pitts. "I really appreciate the owners who have stuck by us and are just as enthusiastic as I am. Really, it's going to be no different. We'll just keep plugging along with the same program and doing the same thing I'm doing now." McPeek's decision to change careers initially caught Pitts off guard.
"When he first told me, I didn't know that the plan was to turn the operation over to me," she said. "So, it was a matter of what am I going to do for a job now? But I appreciate everything he's done for me and that he's given me the opportunity to do this." Pitts fell in love with horses on a Maryland farm owned by her mother, Abla Pitts. After starting in the steeplechase ranks, she spent six years with Maryland-based trainer Francis Campitelli and then joined the McPeek operation. As for those McPeek logos, Pitts will not put them in storage anytime soon. "I'm not going to change it yet," she said. "He might be back in a couple of weeks. We'll see. I'm not going to make some big drastic change. I just want to keep it all the same and do as good as we've been doing."