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Liane Crossley: McPeek savoring Blue Grass victory even as he considers Derby chances

Trainer Kenny McPeek, shown here with 1995 Derby runner up Tejano Run, has two Derby contenders this year. (Photo By Susan Lustig McPeek)


Kenny McPeek has two solid contenders for the Kentucky Derby on May 4, but he is savoring his recent victory in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland as much as the prospect of winning the Run for the Roses. On a recent morning at Keeneland, the Thoroughbred racehorse trainer was fielding congratulations from fellow horsemen and seemingly anyone else who passed by.

“I am not obsessed with (winning the Derby) at this stage,” he said. “I think if it happens, it happens. You just have to focus on the horses. Yes, it would be thrilling to win it, but it is pretty thrilling winning the Blue Grass.”

(Photo by Susan Lustig McPeek)

A graduate of Lexington’s Tates Creek High School and the University of Kentucky, McPeek especially relishes winning at Keeneland where he ranks as the fourth-winningest trainer in the track’s history. On April 13, he sent out Java’s War to win the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and within the hour he watched a simulcast of another trainee, Frac Daddy, finish second in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
McPeek has had four other Kentucky Derby starters including Tejano Run, the runner-up in 1995. His most recent starter, Noble’s Promise, was fifth in 2010.

Growing up in Lexington, McPeek began following horse racing at a young age thanks to his father who owned a small string of Thoroughbreds.

“My dad taught me how to read a pedigree (page) when I was about 12,” he said. “I learned to look at horses through how they are bred. I always enjoyed it and I still enjoy it a lot. I got a job at a horse farm when I got my driver’s permit. They connected me to a weed eater for an entire summer. I had a personal relationship with every fence post on that farm. I got to handle a few horses here and there and that was a start for me.”

Turning points

McPeek said his mother fully expected him to complete college and he dutifully complied, but during his studies he made a discovery that would greatly influence his career path.

“I learned that in the ag library there is every edition of (trade magazines) The Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Record in the basement,” he said. “I figured that out as a freshman, and by the time I graduated, I had read them all.”
Simple comments uttered after hours of celebrating his graduation further affected his career choice.

“The night I graduated I was sitting on the sofa with my roommate; it was 4 in the morning,” McPeek said. “I looked at him and I said ‘wow, I have to get a job.’ And he asked me ‘what do you love?’ And I said ‘that’s easy—I love horse racing.’ He said ‘Good. Do it. I am going to bed.’ An hour later, I was at Keeneland.”

He got a job in the barn of Shug McGaughey—a Lexington native who trains Orb, another Kentucky Derby contender this year—but still was unsure exactly how he would pursue a career in Thoroughbred racing. (See KyForward’s story about Shug McGaughey here.)

When his father called on him to look after some of his racehorses, McPeek stepped in and obtained his trainer’s license. His first winner was at River Downs outside Cincinnati on Oct. 27, 1985. With a modest string of runners, McPeek picked up more wins at Turfway Park in Northern Kentucky and Ellis Park in the western part of the state as others sent horses to him to train.

“I could hardly win at Keeneland and Churchill Downs at the beginning,” he said.

Then people began hiring him to scout for racing prospects at the Thoroughbred auctions and McPeek and his team soon showed an exceptional ability for selecting moderately priced horses and developing them into top class performers. One of those early buys was Tejano Run, a $20,000 bargain as a yearling, who went on to finish second in the Kentucky Derby.

McPeek also showed a flair for introducing newcomers to Thoroughbred ownership. Many of his high level victories come for first-time owners who invest in racing partnerships.

Frac Daddy is the latest example of McPeek’s eye for finding talent on a budget. As agent for owner Magic City Thoroughbreds, he purchased the gray colt for $50,000 at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale. McPeek employs experts to screen virtually every prospect at major auctions and whittle down their selections. McPeek then combs the barn area to see their picks and make final decisions on the purchases.

While the McPeek crew can take credit for picking out Frac Daddy, recognition for Java’s War goes to Charles Fipke, who also owns the colt’s dam and planned the mating that produce the Blue Grass Stakes winner.

“Mr. Fipke breeds quality horses,” McPeek said. “He puts a lot of energy and money into it and I am happy for him. He deserves it.”



Lexington-based freelance writer Liane Crossley is a lifelong lover of Thoroughbred racing who has held a variety of jobs in both barns and offices. Her favorite part of the industry is being with the horses and the people who share her passion for them.

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