Sue and Kenny McPeek.

Sue and Kenny McPeek.

Barbara D. Livingston

Belmont Winning Trainer: Highest Peak

Published in the June 15 issue of The Blood-Horse
He didn't have to eat rats, sleep in the rain, or spend 39 days on a remote island. But Kenny McPeek is a true survivor.

Reality television's best known host, Jeff Probst, wasn't in the winner's circle to congratulate the Kentucky trainer after his 70-1 longshot, Sarava, outlasted 10 rivals to score the biggest upset in Belmont Stakes (gr. I) history. But Bob Baffert, who failed in his bid to sweep the Triple Crown with War Emblem, praised McPeek for his accomplishment.

"He deserves it; he's been through a lot," Baffert said. "Now he gets to at least taste it."

Once the hottest trainer on this year's Triple Crown trail, McPeek hit a run of bad luck that would have tested the patience of Job. First, early Kentucky Derby (gr. I) favorite Repent limped to the sidelines with an injury. Then Harlan's Holiday finished seventh as the Derby favorite and was fourth in the Preakness (gr. I) two weeks later.

Things were bad, but they were about to get worse.

Four days before the June 8 Belmont, McPeek learned he was losing Harlan's Holiday to another trainer, Todd Pletcher. When the colt's owner, Jack Wolf, phoned to break the news, McPeek was eating lunch with his wife, Sue, at the Garden City Hotel in New York.

"Obviously, it was disappointing," Sue McPeek said. "But when a door closes, there is a window that opens."

And through that window charged Sarava, a third-string runner that McPeek had nursed through a quarter crack over the winter. The son of Wild Again had captured only one added-money event prior to his Belmont start, winning the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico on Preakness Day by four lengths.

"It's pretty ironic," said the 39-year-old McPeek, who was celebrating the first classic victory of his career. "But I'm not totally surprised. This colt has been doing great, and I think the Belmont distance (11?2 miles) was a non-issue. He's a galloper with a good turn of foot."

In addition to salvaging a potentially disappointing Triple Crown campaign for his trainer, Sarava helped ease the sting of McPeek's only other experience in the Belmont Stakes. The trainer said he was "upset" three years ago after Pineaff "ran embarrassingly bad" while finishing ninth. Brushed by Charismatic at the start, McPeek's charge never found his best stride until the race was nearly over. But McPeek learned an important lesson, and he called on that knowledge while preparing Sarava for his classic debut.

"When he (Pineaff) came off the track after the Belmont, he was exhausted," McPeek said. "I just took that little nugget, and I saved it. I said, 'The next time I run a horse in the Belmont, I'm going (to New York) early. I'm going to make sure that he gallops over the track with a nice, steady gallop. And I'm going to make sure he gets a good, sharp breeze.' "

After Sarava worked a half-mile in :491?5 at Churchill Downs on May 29, McPeek put the colt on a plane headed north. On June 4 at Belmont Park, Sarava zipped another half in :483?5.

But hardly anyone noticed. The reporters who stampeded McPeek's Churchill barn prior to the Kentucky Derby were busy chasing Baffert and War Emblem. McPeek's loss of Harlan's Holiday, who skipped the Belmont, created more of a stir than Sarava's training moves.

In a June 6 article that appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, McPeek was gracious when asked about Harlan's Holiday's departure.

"Jack Wolf gave me an opportunity with a nice horse, and I thank him for it," the trainer said. "I'm very proud of the job that we did with the horse, and I wish him well."

In the same story, Wolf called the change "more of a business and location decision than anything." He said the main reasons for the move were his purchase of a home in Saratoga Springs and his desire to run his horses in New York, where Pletcher is based. But McPeek had already made plans to send a large contingent from his stable to Saratoga this summer. In addition to asking for space on the track's backstretch, he had even rented a private barn nearby to handle the overflow.

"We've got plenty of horses to fill those stalls," Sue McPeek said. "We have 50 to 60 horses in training in Kentucky, and there are another 20 to 30 still in Florida."

Wolf and his wife, Laurie, attended the Belmont Stakes and spoke with the McPeeks prior to the race. According to Sue McPeek, the conversation was friendly.

"I was very impressed with how we handled each other today," she said, choosing her words carefully. "They wished us the best of luck, and I believe it came from their hearts. I don't think it (the loss of Harlan's Holiday) was entirely unexpected, and we don't bear them any malice. There isn't any reason for them to feel uncomfortable around us, and we shouldn't be uncomfortable around them. The racing community is a small one, and we are going to run into them all the time. Ten years down the road, they might be able to put a few things into perspective and understand that Kenny did nothing but try to work hard for them and be honest with them. I think on some level, they will be able to understand that one day."

When McPeek raised the ornate Belmont trophy high above his head, his wife hugged him hard around the waist. Sue McPeek was flooded with emotion following Sarava's win. Disbelief was followed by exultation. Then she looked at her husband and thought, "Get over here so I can give you a big, old, fat kiss."

A former groom, she was working as an equine photographer when she met her husband. Kenny McPeek is a native of Arkansas, but grew up in Lexington, where he attended the races at Keeneland and played football for Tates Creek High School. He majored in business at the University of Kentucky, but enjoyed reading Thoroughbred publications more than his textbooks. After graduation, he went to work as a hotwalker for trainer Shug McGaughey.

In 1985, McPeek started training his father's stock. He won his first stakes in 1991 with Miss Echo at Canterbury Park. Four years later, he was on the Triple Crown trail with Tejano Run, who finished second in the Derby and ninth in the Preakness.

McPeek sent out Deputy Warlock to finish 10th in the Derby's 2000 edition. Later that year, Sue McPeek was diagnosed with cancer in her mouth while pregnant with the couple's first child. She is healthy now, and so is their daughter, Jenna, who was delivered a month prematurely so her mother could be treated.

"Kenny and I kind of are a pep squad for each other," Sue McPeek said. "When I was dealing with my health issues, he kept my head up. And when something goes wrong at the barn--when a horse doesn't run as well as we had hoped or a horse breaks down--I'm there to keep things in perspective."

Together, the McPeeks are looking beyond Sarava's Belmont Stakes victory.

"We are a team, and we have a plan of action to take our place in racing history on several levels," Sue McPeek said. "I know there are other races that Kenny would like to get under his belt. But even though he is training right now, he has spoken frequently about owning his own racetrack down the road. We love the sport, and we believe in its future. We want to contribute to its betterment." b