Health is real jewel in their Triple Crown

Trainer: Since his wife's cancer scare while pregnant, Ken McPeek roots for his horses but knows there's a bigger winner's circle.

127th Preakness

May 14, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After the morning rain, Sue McPeek arrived at her husband Ken's barn yesterday at Churchill Downs. Little Jenna was in tow, and Harlan's Holiday was out on the track, galloping in the mud.

Harlan's Holiday did not win the Kentucky Derby, although he was the favorite (a tepid favorite at 6-1). Sue and Ken were disappointed, of course. But they quickly put losing the race in perspective and began looking forward to winning the next one, the Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico.

Although winning horse races is their livelihood, they have learned over the past two years that winning races isn't their life. Sue, 42, was found in August 2000 to have a rare form of cancer, a malignant tumor in her mouth behind her left jaw. She was pregnant with their first child.

She underwent two chemotherapy treatments before Jenna was delivered by Caesarean section - six weeks early so that surgeons could remove the tumor and doctors could begin intensive chemotherapy treatments.

Now 19 months old, Jenna is adorable and a whirlwind of energy, exploring horse's stalls and mud puddles. Sue is cancer-free. The acorn-sized tumor, though malignant when discovered, contained no live cancer cells when removed.

Sue figures the early chemotherapy killed the cancer, although, she says, "I like to throw in there the power of prayer. Stranger things have happened."

A fixture at the barn with Jenna snuggling in her arms or shuffling at her feet, Sue was often surrounded by reporters in the days leading to the Kentucky Derby. Many were already familiar with her story. A daily diary in Sue's words appeared in the Louisville paper, and a daily diary in Ken's words appeared in the Daily Racing Form.

"We were as accommodating as possible," Sue says. "It was something I took on as a personal challenge. I was a little surprised that there was as much attention to me as there was. It was pretty overwhelming sometimes."

Yesterday, the McPeeks seemed to relish the tranquility as they shared the morning with the usual suspects - their horses, the barn help, the occasional owner who stopped by to admire his horse. The few reporters out in the rain were over at Bob Baffert's barn. He won the Derby with War Emblem.

Harlan's Holiday has been quickly forgotten - but not by the McPeeks. They still remember his consistent record entering the Derby (first or second in all 10 races) and his explosive victories in Grade I stakes leading to the Derby (Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes).

Ken says the Kentucky Derby was lost for Harlan's Holiday in the first half-mile. He says the colt's jockey, Edgar Prado, made the same mistake as other jockeys in the race. They restrained their mounts out of the gate, allowing War Emblem to gallop into an uncontested lead that turned into a four-length victory.

"We got caught with our drawers down, like the rest of them," Ken says. "Harlan's got speed. We just didn't use it. He could have easily been eyeball-to-eyeball with that horse, but it didn't happen."

He says he'll tell Prado before the Preakness to let Harlan's Holiday break freely from the gate and run with or settle just behind the probable front-runners, War Emblem and Booklet, a speedy horse who skipped the Derby. That is emerging as the common strategy for the 127th Preakness: Don't let War Emblem loose on the lead.

Ken McPeek, 39, has devised Derby and Preakness strategies before. In his first Derby, he finished second with Tejano Run in 1995. Two weeks later in the Preakness, Tejano Run finished ninth, emerging from the race with a bone chip in his ankle.

McPeek also saddled the long shot Deputy Warlock to a 10th-place finish in the 2000 Derby. The Derby was his dream when, the morning after completing his business degree at the University of Kentucky, he drove to Keeneland and got a job walking horses.

He began training four horses for his father in 1985, endured the ups and downs of claiming horses and then, in the early 1990s, began concentrating on buying yearlings and developing young runners. In 1993, he picked out Tejano Run for $20,000. The horse earned more than $1.1 million.

This spring, McPeek trained two of the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby, Repent and Harlan's Holiday, and the leading candidate for the Kentucky Oaks, Take Charge Lady. Like Tejano Run, Repent suffered an ankle chip - in his loss to War Emblem April 6 in the Illinois Derby. Take Charge Lady finished second as the favorite in the Oaks but will try again Friday in the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico.

This will be the McPeeks' second trip to Pimlico for the premier sporting event in the state. Marylanders may not remember Sue or Ken from the 1995 Preakness, but they might remember Ken's black Labrador retriever.

Blinkers was the media darling, starring in broadcasts on local television and articles in local and national newspapers. He became so well-known that he received a large bouquet of flowers from two yellow Labs in New York.

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