By Caton Bredar
Kenny McPeek sounds just slightly frustrated. At his home in Louisville, with an on-line copy of “Turf Brasil” on his lap-top, a file folder chock full of pedigree information and news clips on his desk, the Kentuckian is trying to find a buyer for a Brazilian filly he’s had his eye on for a while.
“She’s a 2-year-old champion. She’s got a great pedigree. For five hundred thousand, someone needs to buy this filly.”
Chances are, someone will, and it wouldn’t be shocking if that someone turned out to be McPeek. While the trainer made his mark domestically with Thoroughbreds like Tejano Run, Take Charge Lady, and Belmont Stakes winner Sarava before he ever made his first intercontinental journey, McPeek has, for the past six years, carved out a niche traveling back and forth to South America, purchasing proven, grade I winners then importing them back to the U.S. with more than moderate success.
A case in point, Hard Buck, winner of the 2002 Gulfstream Park Handicap, was the first Brazilian champion according to McPeek, to capture a grade I event in his North American debut. He was part of the first package of horses McPeek selected and brought back to race in the States. They haven’t all turned out as fortuitously, he is quick himself to point out. The mistake, the trainer believes, was in not buying high enough…not having a good enough horse to start with. For the most part, he now shies away from the lesser or mediocre and tries to learn from his mistakes. It would seem to be a mantra for the horseman who grew bored just a year ago, and retired from training, then “un-retired” this spring, after less than a year away from the game.
With a recently purchased, state of the art training facility in Lexington, and a new, more global outlook on the sport, the man who self-admittedly has tried “just about everything” over the years to win races, is once again trying something entirely new. In the process of re-inventing his training methods, he appears to be re-inventing himself as well.
A self-professed “hard-boot” born and bred in Bluegrass Country, McPeek is a somewhat unlikely student of the sport. He claims to have been first attracted to racing through pedigrees, as a child delving into bloodlines, a passion that he holds true to, even today. Mention a horse of yesteryear such as Tom Fool, and his eyes light up. “The sire of Buckpasser,” he responds.
Try a more recent runner closer to home. “Tejano Run…a double shot of Man O War. You knew, by virtue of that pedigree, what he was made like. From there, it was just a matter of testing his talent.”
An avid reader, McPeek seems as enamored with the historical relevance of the topic of breeding, as he is the role it plays in the horses he trains.
“It’s such an interesting topic,” he says. “The influences, the information, the statistics are all recorded. For generations, records have been kept. You can take any horse, look at the pedigree, see how many foals have been born, how many were bay or chestnut, how many ran long or short, on dirt or turf. It’s a complete analysis of the breed.”
“It comes into play with any horse I ever buy,” he reveals. “How he’s bred. How he’s made. And of course, you use pedigree in training, too. Whether the horse is really made to be a particular type of horse, distance not sprint--how to run and when. The bloodlines give you an idea of the long-term picture, rather than the short term.”
“Any trainer that doesn’t know about bloodlines,” the often outspoken trainer remarks,” doesn’t know about horses.”
McPeek lists Federico Tesio’s “Breeding the Race Horse”, first published in 1958 as mandatory reading for every Thoroughbred trainer. “Speed in the Thoroughbred” also makes the McPeek top ten list.
“If you read that, you understand that horses were bred to cross deserts,” he offers. “Long distances, as a breed, they’re not meant for speed so much as stamina. So the key becomes to harness the speed and develop the stamina.”
“Take Charge Lady, for example, was too fast for her own good,” he continues, speaking of the grade I, 2002 Ashland Stakes winner. “She was meant to run long but was so quick early. I only ran her short the first time I ran her.”
“It might have ruined her,” he says, admitting, “I’ll go so far as to say that sometimes I will rush a horse to go long. They’ll stay sounder that way. I believe it makes them last longer. If I do something well, that’s what it is, I think. By getting them to run long, I allow their careers to extend.”
In an effort to extend the stable, McPeek ventured out internationally in 2002. After rejecting several years of invitations, the now-44-year-old decided to take a trip to Brazil.
“Up until then, I hadn’t found it was a necessity,” he explains. “But there was an opening in the stable for more quality, older horses. I asked my hosts to show me the best horses, and I would tell them what I was interested in.”
After looking at approximately 30 grade I or grade II proven stakes winners, McPeek found several he was attracted to by virtue of past performance, pedigree and type. It’s a formula he still adheres to.
“It’s pretty much the way they’re made,” he says. “A good horse is made a certain way. I’m looking for a certain conformation type. And I’m basically looking for long distance, turf horses.”
A college graduate with a degree in business administration, McPeek, not surprisingly, is also looking for the right price. He says value, particularly in Brazil, is prevalent.
“Better than fifty cents on the dollar,” McPeek claims. “There’s more value due to logistics. Very few good horses are at the racetrack. They’re spread out, they train at training centers four to six thousand feet above sea level. From the airport, you drive two hours into the mountains and then cover the whole coastline. It’ll whip you,” he admits. “But the market is really pretty closed.”
Which makes it a buyers market, as far as McPeek’s concerned, and he’s taking full advantage. “It would be next to impossible to get a grade I horse in the United States for half a million dollars,” he explains. “For me, it’s a matter of budget and clientele. But good horses are good horses. It’s no different than doing a deal here at home.”
But there are a few differences, not the least of which was language. “When you don’t speak the language, and you don’t know the place, it’s difficult,” he observes. He tackled Portuguese with the same pragmatic approach with which he appears to approach most things. “I took eight lessons on a CD and then made a commitment to write down every new word I heard,” McPeek explains. “Then, if I didn’t understand something, I’d ask a friend.”
He’s since expanded that network of friends to include several South American bloodstock advisors and agents, who watch races and look for horses on a year-round basis. McPeek lists Alberto Figueiredo, a veterinarian and racing manager out of Sao Paolo as a key contact, and insists on having all prospective purchases examined in Brazil by U.S.-trained veterinarians, with X-rays digitally sent to Dr. Larry Bramlage for the final okay.
“This is a network I’ve had to build socially as well as professionally,” McPeek says. “But these are people I completely trust. The people of Brazil are a warm people—some of the nicest people I’ve ever been around. They are passionate about racing, and if they’re your friend, they’re your friend for life.”
As for the horses themselves, the transition from South America to North is comparatively simple, according to McPeek. After a nine-hour flight from Sao Paolo to Miami, the horses move into seven days of quarantine.
“That’s actually more difficult than shipping,” McPeek says. “You don’t have any control, and you don’t have the same facilities as a top stable. The flight is relatively easy, but in quarantine, a lot of them lose weight.”
McPeek relies on the transportation company, IRT, for the transport arrangements, claiming “they do a fantastic job.” From there, the horses generally go to a farm in Ocala to recuperate for at least a couple weeks.
“The theory is six months to fully acclimate,” McPeek says. “Hard Buck was the exception. He acclimated quickly. After five months, he ran and won five in a row. But generally, it’s at least six months. It’s particularly difficult on fillies. And the more time they have, the better they do.”
And possibly the better the trainer will do, as well. It was time, McPeek appeared to need himself last year, when he decided to leave the training profession despite more than 750 career winners and earnings in excess of $28 million. After putting together a stable of close to 150 horses, with runners across the Midwest and East, McPeek claims to have grown weary—almost bored—with the day to day grind.
“There were lots of reasons that I quit, professionally and personally,” he says. “After twenty years without missing a beat, I was tired. I had too many horses in too many places. It was something I had never envisioned. I told my wife Sue, I had created Godzilla, and now I had to figure out how to feed him.”
But the monster wouldn’t rest for long.
McPeek made the decision to retire in April, 2005 and spent several months traveling and focusing on his wife of ten years, Sue, and his 5-year-old daughter Jenna. He continued his work as a bloodstock agent, and made several trips overseas, including to Australia. For several months, it was enough.
“As an agent, I did well and stayed busy,” he says. “But in December, it seemed slow. By January, it was too slow. February it was slow. There hadn’t been a horse in Brazil that had caught my eye in about nine months. I had purchased around six million dollars worth of horses for clients, but I didn’t feel the same satisfaction. By late February, I put in for stalls at Keeneland.”
By April, McPeek was back at it, but with a different perspective.
“I don’t want to get too big, and I don’t want to be too stretched out. I don’t want to be stabled in New York or Chicago,” he says. “I want it a Kentucky thing, with horses in Lexington and Louisville. I’m from here, I made my mark here, this is my home. And I can stay closer to Sue and Jenna.”
He’s also back with a different set-up. In addition to stalls at Churchill Downs, McPeek is in the process of developing his own training center in Lexington on a 115-acre parcel of land in northeastern Lexington.
“The evolution of the idea for the farm is complicated,” he says. “I’d been to Brazil, to Argentina, Chile, India, England, Ireland, South Africa and Dubai. I have to say that’s probably more than the average trainer has seen.”
“I’ve been to Newmarket several times,” he continues. “And the options that trainers have there is eye opening. It got me to thinking how training on U.S. racetracks, in many cases, can be so limited. Internationally, there are better options. There’s a better way.”
McPeek believed he saw the better way on a trip this spring to Australia, where he toured two major training facilities. One belonged to Hall of Famer Lee Freedman, who, early in his career according to McPeek, had dealt with similar growing pains and had soured on the game. When Freedman purchased his own property and started over, he became hugely successful. Another of the trainers McPeek met was Colin Hayes.
“His place was way out of the way,” he says. “But he’s one of the top trainers in Australia. I started to piece together ideas from each of their training centers. I wondered, will this work in the U.S., and I decided to find out.”
McPeek began looking for property before he got back to America. He purchased what is now Magdalena Farm, named for the matriarch settler of the land, earlier this spring. The property was formerly part of 505 Farms, and before that, historic Pillar Stud, a point not wasted on McPeek.
“There’s a horse cemetery on the property, some incredible horses are there.” Sue, who assists her husband at the local sales, is researching the human history of the land.
But the McPeeks are looking to the future as well, with plans for 23 turn out paddocks and round pens, a European walker, larger than normal stalls, a mile and a half turf course grown from genetically designed seed.
“Options,” Kenny explains as the main benefit of the facility. “Dirt, turf, right-handed, left-handed, up-hill and down. And the ability to make my own schedule.”
Already, he’s made the change from seven days a week of training to one day —Sundays —off.
“I’m intrigued,” he says. “I love horse racing, and seeing the different ways of doing it…always looking for ways to improve. I think the old ways are inefficient and bad for horses. They’re also bad for people. Change is good, but it’s usually difficult.”
“I want my stamp on it,” McPeek offers. “I’m putting every bit of knowledge and energy I have into it, but there’s a real comfort in doing what I do.”
“I was clumsy when I started training, and I tried everything. I tried it all. I would do anything I could to try and get them to win. But I figured out the best way is to keep it simple. I don’t believe in fancy medication. The more you complicate it the worse you make it. Just keep them happy and sound, and go over with something left.”
“All horses are the same,” he concludes. “They all wear out eventually.”
But hopefully, not their trainers.