04/05/2012 2:04PM

Keeneland: McPeek, Catalano back in force to vie for training title

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Coady Photography/Keeneland
Ken McPeek has been leading trainer at the last three Keeneland meets.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Even in this advanced era of wagering, there are no prop bets regarding leading trainer at a given meet. If there were, then there would be little doubt that the combination of Ken McPeek and Wayne Catalano would be among the favored exactas at the 2012 Keeneland spring meet.

Both trainers have returned after decent Gulfstream Park meets with plenty of horses to run through the end of the meet on April 27. During the opening two-day weekend (Friday and Saturday), McPeek had the most scheduled starters with 10, while Catalano was next with 9.

Oddly enough, at the 2010 Keeneland fall meet, the race for leading trainer went down to the last day, with McPeek edging out Catalano by that same 10-9 count. Both men expressed optimism as the 15-day meet dawned.

“We’ve got a bunch of bullets loaded,” said McPeek, who went 14 for 67 at Gulfstream. “We’ve come out of the winter in great shape. We’ve got a pretty good lineup. The ones we’ve got, they fit the condition book really well.”

McPeek, who grew up in Lexington, has won four of the last five meet titles at Keeneland, including the last three in a row. He said he has a handful of horses still at Oaklawn Park and in New York, but otherwise, “we’re fully set up at Keeneland and Churchill Downs.”

Catalano, a longtime dominant factor on the Chicago circuit, has focused seriously on Keeneland in recent years and believes this could be the meet he leads all trainers in wins. He went 15 for 56 at Gulfstream this winter.

“I’ve got a lot of horses to run, and that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “That’s what you’re here for, right? To run?”

Aside from transitioning his big stable, McPeek has been busy in recent weeks with the release of a new smart-phone app called “HorseRacesNow.” He began on the project nearly two years ago and said jumping through various legal and financial hoops “has been like a Rubik’s Cube.” He said Keeneland will be a major feature of the app and felt strongly that fans will enjoy it.

New regulars in jockey colony

Gabriel Saez, best known as the jockey who rode the ill-fated Eight Belles to her second-place finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby, has decided to become a regular at Churchill and Keeneland. The 24-year-old Panamanian has hired Steve Elzey as his agent and plans to ride through the end of the Churchill spring meet, July 1.

Likewise, Leandro Goncalves, the leading rider at the ongoing Tampa Bay Downs meet, will focus primarily on Keeneland and Churchill while also riding with some regularity at the upcoming Indiana Downs meet, according to agent Jimmy McNerney. Goncalves has dominated the Indiana circuit in recent years.

After the May 5 Kentucky Derby, a vacuum of sorts will exist in the Churchill riding colony with the move of perennial leading jockey Julien Leparoux to New York.

Strong undercard for Ashland

The Grade 1 Ashland Stakes won’t be the only source of entertainment for hard-core racing fans Saturday at Keeneland. The undercard is a good one, with four allowances (races 5, 6, 9, 10) and a 4 1/2-furlong dash for 2-year-old fillies (race 3) on tap.

The first allowance (race 5) is the richest, a $67,000 turf route that drew seven stakes-seasoned older horses. Among the main contenders are Al Khali, who ran in five straight Grade 1 events last year, and Air Support, winner of the Transylvania Stakes on opening day of the 2011 spring meet.

The 2-year-old race features a stable coupling trained by Wesley Ward, including Barisoff, who also was entered against colts on the opening-day card Friday. Ward said he believes Barisoff is his best 2-year-old this year.

◗ Tickets are now on sale for the annual Kentucky Derby Trainers’ Dinner, to be held the Tuesday before the race, May 1, in downtown Louisville. Co-hosted by Paul Rogers and Todd T. Schrupp, the dinner is a favorite among racetrackers and is open to the public. Tickets are $150 and are available by calling (859) 259-1643 or by emailing vgarcia@kta-ktob.com.

◗ The owner’s trophy for the 138th Derby trophy arrived Thursday afternoon at Churchill and was unveiled for the media in the fourth-floor directors’ room. The 14-karat gold trophy weighs almost four pounds and is created by New England Sterling of Attleboro, Mass. The arrival came exactly 30 days before the Derby.