Kenny McPeek has unfinished Kentucky Oaks business.
Take Charge Lady is the most accomplished horse McPeek has trained. She went 11-7-0 from 22 starts, earning just shy of $2.5 million. Twice she won the Spinster, Keeneland's most important dirt route for older females, and she nearly beat the great Azeri in the 2003 Apple Blossom. Take Charge Lady came into the 2002 Kentucky Oaks after romping wins in two Fair Grounds stakes, earning Beyer Speed Figures of 109 and 107, and a 4 1/2-length score in the Grade 1 Ashland, with another 109 Beyer. The 3-2 favorite at Churchill, she fell a half-length short, worn down by Farda Amiga.
"I'm still disappointed she didn't win," McPeek said.
Eighteen years later, McPeek might have his best chance since Take Charge Lady to win the Kentucky Oaks. Swiss Skydiver enters the Oaks after open-lengths victories in the Alabama, the Santa Anita Oaks, the Fantasy, and the Gulfstream Park Oaks, a cross-country tour de force running from March through August. She lost nothing finishing second to the elite 3-year-old colt Art Collector in the Blue Grass Stakes, and now faces Gamine, the even-money morning-line favorite in the Oaks.
Gamine, first across the wire in her four starts, won the Grade 1 Acorn by almost 19 lengths and the Grade 1 Test by seven. Bob Baffert trains her. Michael Lund Peterson bought Gamine for $1.8 million at a 2-year-olds in training sale. Swiss Skydiver? Owner Peter Callahan, on McPeek's recommendation, paid $35,000 for the filly during a quiet session of Keeneland's 2018 September yearling sale.
A win in the Blue Grass and Swiss Skydiver could've been aimed at the Kentucky Derby, and since the filly has sufficient qualifying points for that race, Churchill Downs officials gave McPeek the yellow saddle towel used to identify Derby horses during morning training, along with her pink Oaks towel. One day last week, McPeek trained Swiss Skydiver in the yellow towel, trolling the public. Later in the day, he trolled Gamine's camp online.
"Everyone relax," McPeek tweeted. "The intention is to run in the Kentucky Oaks. Let's decide champion 3yo Filly (sic) on the racetrack. Gamine has ducked us long enough."
McPeek. 58, doesn't mind this kind of attention. His first starters came in 1985, though he didn't win his first graded stakes until 1994, with Tejano Run, the horse that put him on the map. McPeek was raised in Lexington, Ky., growing up in Thoroughbred country but not in a Thoroughbred family. Just 23, he lit out on his own training, in part with support from his father, not taking time to sit at the feet of master horsemen. Even early on, he prided himself on his eye for young horses, though his first several years he trained mainly claimers. And he wasn't wrong. Tejano Run, runner-up in the 1995 Derby, was plucked for $20,000. McPeek was brash, didn't mind talking about his accomplishments, which only amplified his outsider status in the Thoroughbred world. Years later, snarky turf writers kidded one another, "Did you know Ken McPeek won the Belmont with Sarava?" The joke was that McPeek rarely failed to bring the fact up in conversation. But, yes, McPeek had won the Belmont, won it with a 70-1 shot! And, after Tejano Run helped lure clients, he found a slew of talented yearlings buying on a bigger budget. The same year Take Charge Lady came out of the Keeneland sale, so did Repent, second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and one of the favorites for the Derby before injury struck. Later in 2002, Repent was beaten a half-length by Medaglia d'Oro in the Travers.
McPeek is the kind of horsemen who requires new challenges. Pushing boundaries seems to provide as much satisfaction as nuts and bolts of daily training. Think of him as the Elon Musk of trainers. For a good chunk of the aughts, McPeek spent nearly as much time in South America, scouting bloodstock, buying horses, as he did in North America. That was no mere vanity venture. McPeek came up with excellent runners like Hard Buck, a Grade 1-class long-distance turf horse. McPeek, during the summer of 2004, brazenly sent Hard Buck to England for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, one of Europe's most important races. Hard Buck finished second.
In 2006, McPeek purchased Kentucky bluegrass property he turned into Magdalena Farm, which serves myriad purposes. McPeek now can buy yearlings, send them to the farm, break and train them at Magdalena, and maintain control of the entire process of getting a horse from auction to race. Few American horsemen manage such an enterprise. In 2012, McPeek developed and launched a horse racing app, Horse Races Now. The man does not sit still.