ARCADIA, Calif. - With the expansion of the Breeders' Cup program in recent years, there is all sorts of new ground to cover, and trainer Ken McPeek is wasting little time doing so.
This is the second year the Breeders' Cup will offer four races for 2-year-olds, and remarkably, McPeek will have at least one starter in each.
"It just kind of all came together for us," said McPeek. "I don't know how to look at it except that we're here to win all four, not just run in them."
McPeek has five runners ready for the 26th Breeders' Cup this weekend at Santa Anita, and all are 2-year-olds. On Friday, he will send out House of Grace in the $1 million BC Juvenile Fillies Turf, then the uncoupled duo of Beautician and Connie and Michael in the $2 million BC Juvenile Fillies. On Saturday, it will be Bridgetown in the $1 million BC Juvenile Turf and Noble's Promise in the $2 million BC Juvenile.
McPeek, 47, has been training horses since shortly after he graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1984, save for a 10-month self-imposed exile from training that began in the summer of 2005. Since returning in the spring of 2006, he has come back as strong as ever, and with a big day Saturday, he could surpass his 2002 high of $6.6 million in stable earnings. Through last weekend, he has earned nearly $3.7 million in 2009.
Whatever happens, his business is about as vibrant as any trainer's in the game today. Having amassed a lengthy and diverse roster of clients, he recently won his first Keeneland training title at the recently ended fall meet in Lexington, Ky., and his training services are highly sought after even though he has raised his per-day training fees a notch or two above what most of his colleagues charge.
"I need to have people really interested in moving their horses out if they're not going to cut it," he said.
With his active runners typically split among two racetracks and the Lexington farm he owns with his wife, Sue, his method of rotating horses in and out of the stable has become highly efficient and helped him to easily lead the Keeneland meet in starts (66) and wins (17). Unlike some other trainers who have 200 or more horses at their disposal, McPeek is reluctant to expand beyond the 75 or so he currently trains, having grown distasteful of getting too big before his 2005-06 hiatus.
McPeek long has been known for his work with racehorses of all ages and categories, which is why it is astounding that he has brought nothing but 2-year-olds to this Breeders' Cup. One of his general strengths has been getting horses to go a distance, a direct contrast to the stereotype of a trainer with a barn loaded with fast, early developing 2-year-olds.
Of the horses McPeek has brought to the Breeders' Cup, most would qualify under the heading of precocious, save for House of Grace, who charged from well behind to win a Saratoga turf route in her career debut, then the Jessamine Stakes in her only subsequent race.
"She's doing exceptionally well," said McPeek. "She's smart and getting stronger, but she'll need some pace to help with her kick."
Bridgetown, a pace-pressing winner of the Summer Stakes at Woodbine under Rob Landry last out, might fare best from off the pace, McPeek said.
"Rob's job could be really tricky, and our chances could depend on the draw and how the race sets up," he said.
Connie and Michael, whom McPeek said "is just so talented," has had one career race, easily winning in gate-to-wire fashion last month in a Keeneland sprint.
Beautician and Noble's Promise, each with four career starts, are the most seasoned of the McPeek fivesome. McPeek said Beautician "really had a tough trip" when fifth in the Alcibiades last out, and said Noble's Promise, winner of the Breeders' Futurity, "still hasn't shown me he can't get this distance" of 1 1/16 miles.
While the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies have been part of the Breeders' Cup program since its 1984 inaugural, the Juvenile Turf was first run in 2007, and the Juvenile Fillies Turf made its debut last year here. The recent additions were part of the overall expansion that led the Breeders' Cup to go from eight races to 14 and from one day to two days.
It is far too early to say when or if another trainer will have a runner in all four 2-year-old races, although McPeek waves it off as irrelevant, emphasizing that his horses will have to perform well to give his feat any meaning.
"I didn't do this on purpose, like I had to have a horse for each race," said McPeek. "That's just the way it happened. But we don't want to be here just to run. We want to win."