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Updated on 09/16/2011 8:34AM
Happy end for McPeek's tale
ELMONT, N.Y. - Someone remarked to Sue McPeek that the life of she and her husband, trainer Ken McPeek, had been like soap opera the past two years. "Yes, 'As the Racetrack Turns,' " she said.
It turned their way on Saturday, when the McPeek-trained Sarava became the longest-priced winner in Belmont Stakes history, denied War Emblem the Triple Crown, and put a satisfying coda on a roller-coaster spring for McPeek.
At the beginning of the year, McPeek, 39, had two of the nation's leading Kentucky Derby prospects in Repent and Harlan's Holiday. But Repent did not even get to the Derby because he suffered an ankle injury four weeks earlier in the Illinois Derby.
Harlan's Holiday went on to win the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes and came into the Derby as the lukewarm favorite. McPeek went into the Derby in far worse shape, having broken his foot in a pickup basketball game two weeks before the Derby. Harlan's Holiday lost both the Derby and the Preakness to War Emblem, and by the time the Belmont rolled around, he had lost his trainer, too, because owner Jack Wolf removed Harlan's Holiday from McPeek's care and gave him to Todd Pletcher days before the Belmont.
So, for the Belmont, all McPeek had left was a late-blooming 3-year-old who had yet to run in a graded stakes race, let alone a classic. But Sarava proved up to the challenge, scoring a 70-1 upset and adding further chaos to a division that has been in transition all year. From Siphonic to Repent, then to Harlan's Holiday and War Emblem, no 3-year-old has been able to clearly dominate the division.
The only member of the McPeek family who was not in attendance was their daughter Jenna, who is part of the backstory of the McPeek soap opera. Sue McPeek, while pregnant two years ago, was found to have cancer in her mouth. The baby was born prematurely in part to help expedite aggressive medical treatment for Sue. The baby was born healthy. Sue recovered after surgery, though the medication she took initially caused her to lose her hair. Jenna spent the weekend at Sue's parents's home in Virginia, which is where the McPeeks headed Sunday after leaving Belmont Park.
"What is life without difficulty?," McPeek philosophized Sunday morning. "I think things even out. Something's going on. I don't know what. It's almost eerie the way things happen. Life's a zero-sum game. You start with zero, and you end with zero. I believe that for everything bad that happens, there's an equally good thing that happens."
Both Sarava and War Emblem left Belmont Park on Sunday morning for a plane ride that returned them to Churchill Downs. Both were said to be in good shape on Monday morning. They will get a significant break before racing again later this summer.
Sarava "came out of the race great," according to McPeek, who said he felt "numb" after scoring the biggest victory of his career. Sarava got a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 in the Belmont.
McPeek said he believed sending Sarava to Belmont Park two weeks before the race gave his colt an edge.
"The first three finishers all trained here," McPeek said. Medaglia d'Oro was second, and Sunday Break was third; both had trained at Belmont for nearly five weeks. War Emblem, in contrast, arrived on Wednesday from Churchill Downs with three other Kentucky-based Belmont runners. The best performance by that quartet was a fifth-place finish by Proud Citizen, who was injured in the race.
"I ran Pineaff in the Belmont in 1999. He came out of the race exhausted. It knocked him out. I took that nugget and decided if I ever came back, I'd come early," McPeek said. "The year Pineaff ran, Lemon Drop Kid was first, and Vision and Verse was second, and they both trained here."
McPeek said the major summer races such as the Aug. 24 Travers Stakes at Saratoga would be obvious objectives for Sarava, but he said he had yet to form any definitive plan for the colt's next start.
Sarava was making only his fourth start for McPeek, who got the colt in late December. Sarava did not race this year until April 14. Although he trained all winter in Florida, he did not race at Gulfstream Park because of a bad quarter crack on the inside of his right front hoof.
"When we got him, the foot was just gone. The guys who worked on him," McPeek said, citing blacksmiths Jim Brummett and Bruce Scott, "did a fantastic job."
For McPeek, Sarava ran second in a pair of allowance races, at Keeneland and Churchill Downs, before scoring his first stakes victory in the Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard on May 18.
War Emblem remarkably did not emerge with injured hooves despite stumbling badly at the start of the race, according to Jim Barnes, Bob Baffert's top assistant trainer. "It was very fortunate," Barnes said. "Usually when that happens, you grab a quarter or pull a shoe off." Barnes did not know when War Emblem would make his next start.
Both Medaglia d'Oro, who was second, and Sunday Break, who was third, will make their next starts in either the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga, or the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth, both of which are on Aug. 4.
Bobby Frankel, who trains Medaglia d'Oro, was thrilled with his colt's performance. He said losing to a longshot winner reminded him of the 1993 Breeders' Cup Classic, when his horse Bertrando was beaten by Arcangues. Frankel said Medaglia d'Oro would remain in New York this summer.
Neil Drysdale, who trains Sunday Break, said his colt was "a little sore behind" on Sunday morning. "His back end went out on the last turn," Drysdale said. Drysdale said he was not sure if Sunday Break would continue to train in New York, or return to California, to prepare for his next start.
Proud Citizen emerged from the race with a minor fracture to his left front shin. He will have surgery within the next two weeks with Dr. Steve Selway, who has a clinic in the stable area at Belmont Park.
Murray Johnson, the trainer of Perfect Drift, was mystified as to why his horse ran so poorly in the Belmont, finishing 10th of 11. He lost by 72 lengths with jockey Eddie Delahoussaye. "Eddie said he was uncomfortable," Johnson said. "Other than that, there's no apparent excuse."
Perfect Drift was on the same plane that took Sarava and War Emblem back to Kentucky.
- additional reporting by David Grening