09/17/2003 11:00PM

Keeneland often a 20-20 proposition

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - With more than 4,000 horses, the Keeneland September sale comprises a sea of yearlings. Sailing on this equine ocean, many a skipper has sunk because finding the good horses is no simple process.

Most careful observers have developed a plan of action or type of horse that they search for among the yearlings on the sales grounds.

Trainer Ken McPeek, who selected such high-quality horses as Take Charge Lady, Harlan's Holiday, Repent, and Tejano Run from the yearling auctions, searches the barns like an Immigration and Naturalization officer bucking for promotion. He described his approach: "I hire some solid horse people to do the first looks with me. Dominic Brennan probably leads that group, with three to five other lookers."

That group includes McPeek and his wife, Sue.

"We delegate the lookers to different barns," McPeek added, "and they'll produce lists of the horses that meet our requirements."

Part of managing a sale as large as Keeneland September is working fast and consistently, and McPeek said that "as a team we look at them and can slice and dice them as quickly as you can possibly do it. We look at every horse, leave no stone unturned. Some days we start at 8 in the morning and are finished by 10. They are handing me short lists for the second looks by 10:30."

The first-look assistance is important, McPeek said, because "I can't look at all of them myself, maybe 100 per session." But with the first run finished, the intense scrutiny begins with the second looks.

For these, the McPeeks put every horse to the test. "Usually I don't buy a horse until I've looked at it three times," he said. "If a horse impresses you three times, it's a good sort of horse. It's a lot of work and Dr. Scholl's, but I'm walking to the winner's circles."

In contrast to prowling the barns, some trainers can find good horses in the back walking ring behind the sale pavilion. Bruce Headley, who selected champion Kona Gold and top older sprinter Son of a Pistol, said that "with my first glance, I either like or don't like a horse. Most that I see don't have the classic top line. Then I don't waste my time. If he is quality-looking enough, I start looking for all these other qualities."

Headley likes a horse to have "depth of girth, length of neck, lot of depth and width" behind. Like trainer William "Jinks" Fires, Headley has a mental picture of the kind of horse he wants to buy, and he keeps looking till he finds it.

Fires said that "I like a horse that looks like an athlete. It's kinda like looking across a room and seeing an individual you think could play basketball. They've got all the tools."

And once a horse has passed its entrance exam and is worthy of a closer look, the scrutiny only gets tougher. Headley said, "Out of 200 to 300 horses, I might see only five - yesterday I saw only three - that look like what I want, and I don't look at the paper until I've decided on a horse. Pedigree would tell me whether I could afford it or not. Usually I can't, and that's why I've waited till the last part of the sale, when the big jets have taken off."

Despite avoiding the top-priced lots, neither Headley nor McPeek is playing with a tiny budget these days. McPeek said, "We're pushing 30 purchases this year, and the most we spent this year was $280,000, I think - plenty around $200,000." That is a very healthy sum to be spending on horses, but it hasn't always been that way.

McPeek said, "I've evolved from a young trainer who wasn't getting very good horses but had the ambition to get better ones and win better races. Roy Monroe and Ray Cottrell gave me the opportunity to buy good horses. Roy Monroe said that he'd like a Derby horse and put a limit of $20,000. But I managed to get Tejano Run. The more successful I am at the sales, the more successful I am at the barn. I know if I'd sat around and waited for people to send me good horses, nobody would know who I was today."

Headley, Fires, and hundreds of other trainers have come along this same path, and the greatest challenge is finding that headline horse.

In Headley's case, no headlines were bigger than those for Kona Gold and his tilts at the Breeders' Cup Sprint. He said, "Kona Gold had the classical top line. The reason I was able to buy him is Kentucky people are very oriented to statistics. Java Gold was a failure, and they didn't want a Java Gold. But Kona Gold was a great horse."

Thinking outside the statistical box, a keen eye, and plenty of work are paying off for trainers searching for that next stakes star.