03/06/2007 12:00AM

McPeek comes full circle

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It was some 20 years ago that Ray Cottrell, a gravelly voiced car dealer in Brandenburg, Ky., put his faith - to say nothing of his hard-earned capital - in the hands of a young, unproven Kentucky horseman named Ken McPeek. There are far worse investment strategies.

McPeek, 44, has made a name for himself not just as a trainer, but as a judge of young horseflesh, demonstrating over and over the ability to discern in the frame and carriage of a raw young equine body the stuff of a good racehorse. Among the gems he has found at auction for less than a princely sum include Tejano Run, who cost $20,000, finished second in the Kentucky Derby, and earned more than $1.1 million; She's a Devil Due, purchase price $30,000, career earnings of almost $534,000; and the Cottrell-owned Prince Arch, bought for $37,000, retired with almost $610,000 in purse money.

Add to that list Birdbirdistheword, for whom Cottrell paid $32,000 at a Florida yearling auction in August 2005. "I'm a small budget guy," Cottrell said. "Birdbird - that was about $2,000 over my budget."

Call it money well spent. Thanks to his win last December in the $1 million Delta Jackpot, Birdbirdistheword already has earned more than $702,000. His connections are hoping for more. Birdbirdistheword makes his 3-year-old debut on Saturday at Fair Grounds in the Louisiana Derby, and if things go as planned, the colt will take McPeek back to the Kentucky Derby for the first time since 2002, Cottrell for the first time since 1991, when his horse Wilder Than Ever finished 15th. Fighting Fantasy, Cottrell's first good horse, had finished 15th the year before.

Here's the thing with McPeek: At that auction in the summer of 2005, he was on hiatus from life as a horse trainer. McPeek had begun scouring the globe - especially South America - looking for stakes horses at the same time that his training operation had sprawled to dimensions greater than he'd ever intended. McPeek told clients he'd continue to help manage the racing stable, but turned day-to-day operations over to his assistant, Helen Pitts, and got out of training between June 2005 and April 2006, saying he was devoting himself full-time to bloodstock work.

"The time away was something I needed to do, personally and professionally," said McPeek, a native of Lexington, Ky. "I think the structure of the stable, it had grown into something I hadn't envisioned. You get to doing something in life, and the next thing you know, you look up and say, 'How did I get here?' "

There was some awkwardness as Pitts transitioned to head trainer, but Pitts has done well enough that even after McPeek decided to return to training she has stayed on with a solid stable of runners. And McPeek was able to pretty much pick up where he left off: Eight months after his comeback, he won a $1 million race, and besides Birdbirdistheword, he has another good 3-year-old in Bold Start, who finished second in the Hutcheson Stakes last weekend.

"Because I buy most of the horses I train, I guess you could say it puts me in control of my destiny," McPeek said. "I'm fortunate. I've got people that trust my judgment in buying."

Cottrell said he liked and trusted McPeek from their first meeting. He rarely attends auctions himself, just listens over the phone as McPeek calls out bids. Cottrell never has spent more than $60,000 for a horse, and got little in return the time he went that high. A horse like Birdbirdisthword can make up for the failures.

"He was the picture of the racehorse," said McPeek. "He's got a beautiful hip on him. He was by a young sire [Pure Prize] out of an unproven mare - which I like - and he had all the right parts in all the right places."

Birdbirdisthword, debuting at Arlington last July 30, finished fifth in a fast sprint maiden race. He made his second start at one mile on Arlington's turf course, not so much for the surface, but because McPeek felt he needed more distance. Birdbirdistheword won impressively, then won again over the Louisiana Downs grass course in the $100,000 Harrah's Juvenile. He came out of a fourth-place finish behind Great Hunter in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland with a lung infection that McPeek described as "4 on a scale of 5," but showed no lingering effects at Delta, where a fast early pace aided Birdbirdistheword's finishing kick.

McPeek said he picked out Saturday's race long ago for Birdbirdistheword's first start at 3, and wants the horse to have only two preps for the Kentucky Derby, theorizing that Birdbirdistheword comes to a quick form peak.

"I think he's better, a lot better, than he was last year," McPeek said.

So is McPeek, for that matter. Drawing on training practices he saw in Australia, McPeek bought property near Lexington that has turned into a training center called Magdalena. Come summer, the facility will house close to 50 horses that can train on dirt and turf. Who knows how this sort of thing will work out, but for McPeek, part of the satisfaction lies in finding out.

"I've had more fun in the last year doing what I'm doing than I've ever had training horses," he said. "Maybe I like climbing mountains more than I like standing on top of one."