03/07/2002 1:00AM

The golden apples of McPeek's eye


NEW ORLEANS - If it isn't enough that he organizes their exercise regimens, worries about their eating habits, and plots out their racing careers, Ken McPeek found them, too.

McPeek selected for purchase as yearlings, as he did with many horses he trains. Both came out of the 2000 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling sale, and both cost a bundle by McPeek's past standards: Take Charge Lady $175,000, Repent $230,000.

Those prices are starting to look like blue-light specials as both horses rise to the top of their classes.

Three weeks ago Take Charge Lady won the Grade 3 Silverbulletday Stakes by more than eight lengths. A day later Repent won the

Grade 3 Risen Star by more than two. Both horses return to Fair Grounds as overwhelming favorites in a pair of Grade 2 races this weekend, Take Charge Lady in Saturday's Fair Grounds Oaks, Repent in the Louisiana Derby on Sunday.

Based at Gulfstream Park this winter, the two horses share space on a chartered plane, live under the same roof, and have the same owner, Select Stable. They are also testaments to McPeek's prowess as an evaluator of young talent.

The 39-year-old McPeek has bought horses for clients for almost as long as he has trained them, and his tales of a childhood fascination with Thoroughbreds include trips to the Keeneland sales pavilion, not misty mornings on the backstretch of a racetrack.

"I liked going out to the sales, looking at broodmares and pedigrees, seeing what things were worth," McPeek said.

McPeek grew up in Lexington, Ky., and in the summers between high school years he worked at a horse farm. "I took care of broodmares in the morning," he said, "In the afternoon, I cut grass. I thought I was attached to a weed eater."

He earned a degree in business finance from the University of Kentucky, but decided after graduation to do what he loved and took a job at Keeneland as a hotwalker for trainer Shug McGaughey. McPeek's was not the typical drawn out apprenticeship of a novice horseman. A year later, in 1985, he had his trainer's license and was learning things first-hand.

"My dad had some horses in training and he asked me to help with them," McPeek said. "He was busy with a business or he might have trained them himself. What started as helping him out became a full-time job."

Two owners, Roy Monroe and Ray Cottrell, gave McPeek his first real shot at buying horses in the early 1990's. He dove into the business with little direct knowledge. "You know, if you have a passion for something, you're going to figure it out," he said. "There's a large amount of failure involved. You see what sort of horse you bought from one sale to the next. After awhile, you say, 'I had one like that looked like that before, and he couldn't run.'"

A decade ago, McPeek's budgets were shoestring, under $30,000 per horse, but he sifted through the lower end of the market to find prospects like Tejano Run, who cost $20,000, earned more than $1.1 million, and finished second in the Kentucky Derby. An $8,500 filly named Warside, one of his first purchases, went on to win several stakes.

"You can go into a sale and buy them all day long for under $100,000," said McPeek. "You choose the one that's physically superior."

No wonder that with increased funds at McPeek's disposal, his clients are landing top-class runners. "The eye's still there, but the budget's getting bigger," McPeek said earlier this week.

The eye. It's bloodstock parlance for the ability to spot a hot yearling prospect at a glance. The eye can be cultivated, but at some level, either you have it or you don't.

"Nice horses do stand out if you have the eye for them," said Reynolds Bell Jr., who has headed his own Lexington, Ky.-based bloodstock business since 1991 and is a regular at major Thoroughbred auctions. "You can think you can have the eye, but you have to prove it out."

Trainers like Woody Stephens and D. Wayne Lukas have been noted for their discerning eyes. "But there are trainers who can't buy horses out of the ring at all," Bell said. "They just don't seem to know what to look for. I think, obviously, Kenny has done very well."

McPeek says he looks for younger, unproven dams that have class farther back in their pedigree, and for offspring of new stallions that don't yet command top prices. And the more he looked at horseflesh, the more he developed an immutable set of criteria for judging a horse. "I'm obsessive about the hip," he said. "It's the motor. The hip makes the horse." And McPeek won't compromise on a deep shoulder that denotes strong lung capacity.

Because McPeek winds up training most of the horses he buys, he sees firsthand the development of characteristics observed in a young sales prospect. "I don't think there's any doubt that buying them and going through the whole process is a big edge," he said. "When horses get injured, it's always because they're made a certain way."

McPeek's discoveries have hit the Triple Crown radar for the last several years, though prospects like Go Lib Go, Nature, Deputy Warlock, and Pineaff failed to take the final step up into major races. That could change this year.

With Repent and Take Charge Lady, McPeek, at this point, has true contenders for the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks. These horses aren't that much different from the animals McPeek has bought for years - they just resided higher up in the market.

McPeek guesses Repent would have been a $1 million yearling had he not been from a first-crop sire, Louis Quatorze. "He was striking then and he's striking now," McPeek said. "He more than any horse had a great hip."

Take Charge Lady, a Dehere filly, also had the strong hip that McPeek covets. "She was a tall and leggy filly, very nice. She was very hard to fault."

The same can be said of McPeek's relentless search for stakes horses. "I always wanted to have top horses," he said. "The only way I was going to get them was if I found them myself."