Pitts enjoying her `Holiday'

At 27, Marylander finds herself with a favorite

Kentucky Derby notebook

May 03, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Hang around trainer Ken McPeek's barn long enough at Churchill Downs, and you find out who really runs the show.

"Where's Helen?" "Have you seen Helen?" "The vet needs Helen." "Helen takes care of that." "Helen?" "Helen?" "Where's Helen?"

OK, she doesn't really run the show. But Helen Pitts, a Marylander, is an integral part of the team behind Harlan's Holiday, the morning-line favorite for the Kentucky Derby, and Take Charge Lady, the favorite for the Kentucky Oaks.

Pitts, 27, is an exercise rider and an assistant to McPeek. She gallops both the big horses, and before he got hurt, she galloped Repent, back when he was a leading contender for the Derby.

"It's like a dream," Pitts said. "I never thought I'd be in a position like this."

She grew up in Monkton on the family farm, riding horses before riding a bike. She fox-hunted, showed ponies, raced ponies, rode steeplechase horses and worked for trainers Charlie Fenwick, Jack Fisher and Fran Campitelli. In December 2000, she began working for McPeek.

"I feel real fortunate to have snapped her up," McPeek said. "She's got very positive energy. She's fabulous with the horses. She'll train horses someday if she wants to. You'll see her train Derby horses one day if I have anything to do with it."

Pitts said she'd eventually like to train horses on her own, but that right now the Oaks today and Derby tomorrow are foremost in her mind. Naturally, she loves the chances of Harlan's Holiday, whom she describes as a "big ol' kid with tons of energy," and Take Charge Lady, whom she says is "one of a kind, an absolute baby doll."

What's more, Pitts may even get to saddle Harlan's Holiday in the paddock before the Derby. McPeek broke his foot playing basketball and has been hobbling around on crutches. He said he'll see how antsy the colt is before the race and then decide who will put on the saddle.

"People spend their whole life trying to get to the Derby," said Pitts' mother, Avla "Poppet" Pitts, by phone from Maryland, "and here she may be saddling one at the first Derby she's involved with. We're so excited. It's sort of a dream coming true."

Back at McPeek's barn, someone asked McPeek whether Harlan's Holiday would "school" in the paddock any day this week. McPeek thought for a moment.

"I'll talk to Helen," he said, smiling. "She's smarter than I am."

`Lusty' turnaround

Jeff Mullins, trainer of Lusty Latin, has no doubt where his gray horse will be shortly after the break. Said the California trainer: "He'll have to make his way through 19 other horses. I'm sure he'll be last."

Mullins claimed Lusty Latin for $62,500 in November at Hollywood Park. His owners, Wendy and Joey Platts, have since been offered $1.5 million for the son of El Prado, the trainer said. Lusty Latin's only stakes win was the $30,000 Rattlesnake Stakes at Turf Paradise, but his late charge for third in the Santa Anita Derby gave hope for the Kentucky Derby.

Mullins said Lusty Latin's turnaround came in early February after undergoing surgery for removal of an undescended testicle. Mullins' wife, Amy, who gallops the horse, believed that the testicle was bothering him.

"He definitely started running better," Jeff Mullins said. "He went from breezing five-eighths in 1:03 to 1:00 flat. I don't know if it was that we took the one out, or that we threatened to take the other one."

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