- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

LOUISVILLE, Ky. Reaching the winner's circle might be harder for trainer Ken McPeek than for Harlan's Holiday in Saturday's 128th Kentucky Derby.

With a broken ankle from a recent basketball game, McPeek must shuffle on crutches through an expected crowd of 150,000 to reach the Churchill Downs infield cupola. Harlan's Holiday simply needs to outrun 19 colts as the early favorite.

"Maybe I'll take the tunnel," McPeek said jokingly. "If he wins, I'll just walk."

Early-morning crowds haven't engulfed McPeek's barn, letting him ride his golf cart unhindered. Unlike past Derbies when the favorite was a must visit for throngs of fans, Harlan's Holiday has emerged the slight choice in the field of 20.

The pressure isn't building. Then again, it never will with McPeek. His only sleepless night came Monday, when he forgot his pain medication. McPeek had one horse in 1989 when his biggest owner went bust, and he lost 10 horses in 1991 because the owner didn't think McPeek was ready for major races.

Still, that was nothing compared to last year, when McPeek's pregnant wife, Susan, was diagnosed with a rare mouth cancer. She was forced into an early delivery so she could begin chemotherapy. Susan is now cancer-free and their daughter, Jennifer, is a frequent visitor at the stable, where 36 horses train.

"Maybe I was a little obsessive about horse racing before everything Susan went through," McPeek said. "I think I relaxed a lot more about it. You can't control everything. You don't know what will happen six months from now. Trainers that never miss a day of work, that's great, but there are other things that are more important in life that you need to absorb."

McPeek is a Kentucky hardboot, growing up outside the Keeneland race track, where he began walking horses the day after earning his finance degree from the University of Kentucky. McPeek spent the preceding summer in New York painting houses two days a week when Belmont Park was closed and attending races instead of seeking jobs with Wall Street firms. The barns just seemed so much more inviting than bonds.

Tejano Run's runner-up finish in the 1995 Derby made McPeek the third person from his Lexington high school to place, joining trainers Shug McGaughey (Easy Goer, 1989) and Tom Bohannan (Prairie Bayou, 1993).

"I was mad at the second [-place finish]," McPeek said. "My feeling was, 'So close, but so far. It stirred the fire in me to win it."

Maybe that's why McPeek opted to change riders aboard Harlan's Holiday following two straight seconds in Florida earlier this year. Tony D'Amico is a respected local rider, but McPeek chose Edgar Prado, who dominated Maryland racing for three years until departing for New York in 1999.

Prado finished 11th and fourth the past two Derbies, respectively, and has no better than a fourth in five Preakness Stakes, but McPeek liked the rider's coolness. Prado rode Harlan's Holiday to easy victories in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes to emerge as the Kentucky Derby choice.

"[The Derby] makes some riders nervous their first time around there," McPeek said. "When you have a top contender, you want to take every edge. Edgar is very calm."

Said Prado: "I rode in the Preakness a few times before the Derby. The second leg of the Triple Crown is not as exciting as the first. The Derby is a Pandora's box you never know what's going to happen."

McPeek, 39, has steadily developed stakes winners like Car Dealer, Make Your Mark, Miss Echo, Deputy Warlock and Her Temper. Now he's reached the double apex of Kentucky racing by also saddling Take Charge Lady as the favorite in tomorrow's Kentucky Oaks before an expected crowd of 100,000.

Maybe winning the Oaks will leave McPeek relieved. Then again, nothing beats heading over to the paddock with the Derby choice.

"I'd rather be the Derby favorite than a long shot," he said.

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