Oaks and Kentucky Derby Winner Kenny McPeek Focused On The Work Instead Of Winning

And His Horses Won Both Major Derby Weekend Races

May 6, 2024 at 6:49 pm
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Kenny McPeek Won The Kentucky Derby Without Losing His Way

He stuck with his counterintuitive instincts in a business that breeds conformity, training horses without regard for his winning percentage or the additional burdens he bears running a soup-to-nuts operation in a sport of specialists and fragmentation.

“We try to teach horses to take a little dirt in their face,” McPeek said Saturday, by way of explaining Mystik Dan’s victory in Derby 150. “This colt, he had some schooling in his first start. He could have won first time out if you wanted him to, but he wouldn’t have learned anything.

“So that, for me, makes me maybe a little bit different.”

The surest way for a trainer to attract and keep rich clients is to win races. Owners who barely know the difference between a furlong and a fetlock can usually understand percentages, and McPeek’s career win rate of 15% is lower than all 20 of the trainers who have earned more money during their careers.

But those willing to play the long game have often been rewarded for their patience, extravagantly so last weekend. In winning the Kentucky Oaks with Thorpedo Anna and the Derby with Mystik Dan, McPeek became the first trainer to win both of Churchill Downs’ most prominent races on consecutive days since Ben Jones did it for Calumet Farm in 1952.

He also completed his career Triple Crown, adding the Derby to his 2020 Preakness victory with the filly Swiss Skydiver and his 2002 Belmont victory with the longshot Sarava. 

“We have a bit of a phrase at the race,” said Jamie Wilson, part owner of Thorpedo Anna. “We say, ‘In Kenny We Trust,’ because he has that unerring knack of finding these horses really on the cheap side and turning them into superstars as he has with this one.”

McPeek bought Thorpedo Anna as a yearling for $40,000. He paid $35,000 for Swiss Skydiver, a filly that eventually sold for $4.7 million. Mystik Dan, bred and still part-owned by a group headed by Lance Gasaway, has yet to be sold but surely raised his value by multiple millions on Saturday.

“I think finding a good horse is harder than training it,” McPeek told me in 2022. “I don’t think training is rocket science. If you do a good job at the auction, that fuels everything else.”

Thoroughbred racing has few buyers as discerning. Mark Edwards, another of Thorpedo Anna’s owners, says an exercise rider calls McPeek “a seven-second man,” capable of looking at a horse for seven seconds and knowing if it’s a good one.

“I can go to a horse sale, look at hundreds of horses, and come out of there and go ‘Oh, yeah, that horse up in Barn 32, Stall 7, that’s by Smart Strike, that was the horse,’ ” McPeek once said. “But I couldn’t tell you anybody I met. I can’t remember names. You can tell me a story, a joke — a really great joke — and I couldn’t retell it. It’s weird.”

Laboring primarily on the inexpensive end of the thoroughbred business, McPeek looks for what he calls “points of reference,” before making a purchase. He describes horses as a “living, breathing art,” and, a few breaths later, as “three-dimensional constellations.” He wants to see the length of a horse’s head and neck, the depth of the shoulder, the angle of the withers, etc.” and will pass if the sum of the parts is something less than symmetry. He prefers to breed similar types of horses with each other, reasoning “you wouldn’t breed a beer bottle to a wine glass.”

Magdalena Farm, McPeek’s Lexington base, is among the most comprehensive operations in racing, a one-stop shop for breeding, development, racing and rehabilitation. Few trainers wear so many hats.

“I think what I’m most proud of is we didn’t do it with Calumet Farm horses; we did it with working-class horses,” McPeek said Saturday. “This isn’t a huge, zillion-dollar operation. We didn’t throw money at this. We thoughtfully went through it all, and it’s amazing.”

But don’t think Kenny McPeek was the least bit amazed. Before Thorpedo Anna’s Oaks victory, McPeek had boasted that other trainers had better bring a bear because he had a Grizzly. Following that race, a press conference moderator suggested the trainer might return to the interview room after Saturday’s Derby.

“Count on it,” McPeek said.