06/10/2004 11:00PM

McPeek finds Brazilian gems

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CHICAGO - To buy a racehorse you can go to an air-conditioned sales pavilion in central Kentucky or central Florida.

Or, to delve slightly deeper, you can catch a plane to Brazil.

Many take the first approach; only a handful take the second, including Ken McPeek, whose Brazilian excursions have been turning up runners.

On Saturday, McPeek was to send Hard Buck, one of the better older turf horses in the country, to the Opening Verse Stakes at Churchill Downs. On Sunday, two more Brazilians trained by McPeek, Prodigus and Art Variety, contest a $38,000 overnight handicap at Arlington. The race is carded for 1 1/2 miles on turf, but heavy rain pounded Chicagoland on Thursday night and more was forecast before Sunday, so the race could be moved to dirt.

"I think if it goes to dirt, Prodigus is better," McPeek said. "On turf, I think Art Variety is better."

They are both pretty good, and McPeek has been impressed with the horseflesh presented to him in Brazil.

"There's a lot to choose from, but it can be difficult seeing horses there," he said. "Some of them are around Rio, some are around Sao Paulo. Some are at the racetrack, some are at obscure training centers."

McPeek said some of the best Brazilian horses train high in the mountains. "You're driving, and it's like you were going to get lost, and then all of a sudden you're out in this amazing training center."

Brazil produces 3,000 to 4,000 Thoroughbred foals each year, and McPeek said he expects he'll be "buying horses there for the next 20 years." And he says he thinks he has found his next star, a horse named New Famous, who had his first day of U.S.-style training on Friday at Churchill.

Art Variety just ran May 31, finishing fourth in the Grade 3 Louisville Handicap. "He runs good on two weeks' rest," McPeek said.

A repeat of the Louisville performance would probably give Art Variety a win over his five foes here Sunday, but that is assuming the race stays on turf. Art Variety has started only once on dirt, finishing off the board on a wet track. Prodigus, on the other hand, has made seven main-track starts, winning three of them.

Two others in the race, National Anthem and Prospect Green, seem unlikely to run on dirt, but both Blackinton and Apalachee Special, a 9-year-old, have multiple main-track victories. Prospect Green just won a 12-furlong turf race at Arlington, albeit over $30,000 claimers.