06/02/2012 3:19PM

Belmont Stakes 2012: McPeek hopes lightning strikes twice

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Barbara D. Livingston
Unstoppable U, unbeaten in two starts, is one of two longshots trainer Ken McPeek will send out in next Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Ten years ago, trainer Ken McPeek pulled off the biggest upset in Belmont Stakes history with the 70-1 Sarava. On Saturday, McPeek will try to do it all over again by taking on the heavily favored I’ll Have Another with his two outsiders, Atigun and Unstoppable U.

As will be the case here Saturday with I’ll Have Another, a Triple Crown was on the line in 2002, with War Emblem coming into the Belmont off victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But Sarava, overlooked despite having posted a four-length victory on the Preakness undercard in the Sir Barton, shocked just about everybody but his trainer by outgaming Medaglia d’Oro by a half-length following a prolonged stretch drive.

[BELMONT STAKES: Video updates, expected field, early odds]

Atigun is the more experienced of the McPeek duo and comes into the Belmont off a 1 1/4-length victory against high-priced optional claiming horses at Churchill Downs. Unstoppable U is unbeaten and untested in his only two starts.

McPeek said he had thought the distance of the Belmont might give Sarava a chance.

“I like handicapping the old fashioned way, adding up the track variant and speed ratings in the Daily Racing Form,” McPeek said. “I was raised with the old numbers, and the old numbers said he was only three lengths off the Preakness with his effort in the Sir Barton earlier on the same card. I knew that we had another seven-sixteenths of a mile to make up those three lengths. I didn’t really think or know if Sarava was a mile and one-half horse, but the Belmont is one of those races where if you have a horse coming off a good race, you can’t be scared to take a chance because a lot of things can happen, more so than most any other race. In Sarava’s case the timing was right and he was coming off a good race. He didn’t beat a stellar field in the Sir Barton and nobody gave him much of a chance here, but like I said, a lot of weird things happen.”

McPeek believes Atigun and Unstoppable U are both better horses than Sarava.

“I think both these horses are bigger, stronger, and better than Sarava,” said McPeek. “They’re just not tested at a high level yet. Unstoppable U has the advantage of having been training here. He’s been over this surface the past seven or eight months. Atigun, I think pedigree-wise, suits the race and he’s also doing exceptionally well right now too. So I think there’s more to gain than lose by running either one of them.”

McPeek had planned to work both Atigun and Unstoppable U here Saturday but not surprisingly postponed both those breezes after heavy overnight rains left the track sloppy and sealed with the dogs out approximately nine feet after the renovation break.

“We can work Sunday or even Monday,” said McPeek. “We’re just going to do the basic stuff with both of them. We half-miled Sarava twice prior to his Belmont win and Atigun will go a half-mile for sure when he works. The other horse might go five furlongs.”

Unstoppable U was particularly impressive galloping over the wet track on Saturday, picking up the pace to complete three furlongs from the quarter pole out beyond the wire in 40.24 seconds.

“He’s a serious horse,” said McPeek. “He does that every day. I like to let them gallop off then come on strong down the stretch to get them used to finishing.”

I’ll Have Another had another routine morning, jogging alongside his regular partner Lava Man to the 5 1/2-furlong pole before galloping another mile. I’ll Have Another came down the stretch at a two-minute clip, which is a bit slower than usual for him, although he seemed to handle the sloppy surface well.

“We just did our normal routine with him,” said trainer Doug O’Neill. “The track took about an inch and a half of rain but they got a good seal on it after the last race yesterday and the horses were getting over it well this morning. It was a nice, safe track.”

I’ll Have Another’s only poor performance came over a sloppy track when he finished a distant sixth last fall in Saratoga’s Grade 1 Hopeful.

“He got into a lot of trouble and came out of the race with sore shins,” O’Neill said of the Hopeful. “He’s trained on a lot of sloppy tracks during the Triple Crown run and I don’t think it’s an issue.”

O’Neill also revealed Saturday that he does not plan on schooling I’ll Have Another at the gate prior to the Belmont.

“I think it’s like teasing a horse taking them up there to the gate,” said O’Neill. “I schooled him once before the Derby but not before the Preakness. He’s a good horse in the gate and if it’s okay with the starter, I won’t school him here either.”