09/01/2006 11:00PM

McPeek goal within reach

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CINCINNATI - When Ken McPeek decided to resume his training career earlier this year, he set a modest but realistic goal for himself.

"I told my staff the short-term goal is to win the Cradle," he said.

Fair enough. A 20-year veteran who went on a 10-month hiatus that ended in April, McPeek has enjoyed far more than his share of success in racing, having amassed 786 wins and almost $29 million in stable earnings. With 14 wins (through Friday) since returning, his rebuilding project seems right on schedule, although a victory in the $200,000 Cradle Stakes on Monday at River Downs would emphatically stamp that ticket.

McPeek eyed the Cradle as a viable milestone because the 1 1/16-mile race is the first substantive two-turn stakes for 2-year-olds in the Midwest.

"I like getting young horses to go long," he said.

And with a pair of promising colts, Bold Start and Loose Leaf, entered among the Cradle's 10-horse field, McPeek stands a solid chance at his third Cradle victory, having previously won with Deputy Warlock in 1999 and Harlan's Holiday in 2001.

Bold Start, a maiden winner on closing day of the spring meet at McPeek's main base, Churchill Downs, seems to rate the better shot. With Larry Melancon to ride, Bold Start will break from post 5 doing what most of the Cradle field will be doing: stretching out for the first time.

"He was a slow learner in the beginning, and he kind of had a tough time learning when to go and when not to," said McPeek. "But Larry has done a great job teaching him. He's a raw talent, but if he transitions from sprints, he could be anything."

Besides the McPeek duo, other logical contenders in the 30th Cradle include Passport, a Claiborne Farm homebred whose lone race resulted in a come-from-behind victory on the Ellis Park turf; Wannabeinclued, a romping maiden winner at Louisiana Downs; Wham, a sharp maiden winner at Ellis; Trophy Road, an Ohio-bred boasting a 10-length victory at River Downs; and Izzie's Halo, a Tom Amoss-trained maiden who brings the highest Beyer Speed Figure (80) into the race.

The rest of the field is Pewee Valley, Mister Cugat, and Cajun Mon.

The Cradle, the annual signature event that closes the River meet, is the 14th of 15 races on a mixed program with sister track Thistledown.