11/27/2008 1:00AM

McPeek has young talent as priority


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Ken McPeek figures he can have "leftover turkey dinner or something" when he takes a rare break Saturday at Churchill Downs. With horses in 10 of the 12 Stars of Tomorrow races, McPeek will be a busy fellow, a testament to how his stable is overflowing with quality 2-year-olds.

McPeek cut his racing teeth on claiming horses, but it has been about 15 years since he shifted emphasis to buying and developing young horses. Tejano Run, Repent, Take Charge Lady were just some of the 2-year-olds to win major races for McPeek and his clients.

Particularly in the last few months, McPeek, who returned from a self-imposed 10-month hiatus in April 2006, has been a tour de force on the Kentucky circuit. He barely missed out on the training title to Mike Maker last month at Keeneland, and while second again to Maker at the Churchill meet, he has won eight races with 2-year-olds, a meet high.

"I've been all about young horses for a long time," he said, "but I think it's more noticeable now because of the way we've consolidated to one place, as opposed to being spread all across the country the way we used to be" before his 2005-06 break.

Dream Empress, winner of the Grade 1 Alcibiades and second to Stardom Bound in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, leads the McPeek brigade Saturday as the likely favorite in the Golden Rod Stakes. McPeek also has major contenders in Striking Dancer in the Caressing and in quite a few of the allowance and maiden races on the undercard.

In all, McPeek has 14 horses on Saturday's card, including three also-eligibles. The only races without a McPeek entry are the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and the Grand Canyon. Dale Romans, with 11 entries, has the second-most among trainers.

Tribute to stir memories

When Churchill takes time out from the closing-day card on Saturday to salute Curlin, a familiar feeling will surface for Ralph Nicks. It was 12 years ago that Churchill honored Cigar in similar fashion.

"It was a very, very special moment," recalled Nicks, who at the time was the top assistant to trainer Bill Mott. "On the other side of it is an empty feeling, because you know that they're leaving you."

Curlin will be paraded before the Churchill crowd following the fifth race, with a brief tribute to follow in the winner's circle. Curlin, the all-time earnings leader in North American racing history, is being retired to stud at Lane's End Farm. The 4-year-old colt is owned by the Stonestreet Stable of Jess Jackson and trained by Steve Asmussen.

Grand Canyon, Caressing packed

Besides the KJC Stakes and Golden Rod, the Saturday card also includes the $56,000 Grand Canyon and $56,000 Caressing, 1 1/16-mile turf stakes that both drew overflow entries.

Rockin' Joe, an allowance winner at Keeneland, could come a slight favorite in the Grand Canyon, with logical challengers being Ninth Client, Jack Spratt, Presents for Berti, and Smart Shot.

The Caressing appears equally competitive. Besides Striking Dancer for McPeek, Sugar Mom returns from the Breeders' Cup and also looks promising.

As many as 12 can run in each race.

Leparoux picks Florida for winter

Julien Leparoux, who during the final three-day stretch was bidding to break the Churchill fall-meet record for most winners, said he definitely will ride at Gulfstream Park for the first time this winter. Leparoux said earlier this month that he was leaning toward Gulfstream over Fair Grounds.

Leparoux said his client base is basically split between the two tracks but he might have a better chance to pick up a top Kentucky Derby mount in Florida. Gulfstream starts Jan. 3, and Leparoux will take some time off before going there.

Leparoux rode three winners Thursday, giving him 54 for the meet and bringing him to within one of the 1985 record set by Pat Day.

Capt. Candyman Can seeks double

Capt. Candyman Can will be trying to following Tiz Wonderful in sweeping the Iroquois and Kentucky Jockey Club. Tiz Wonderful, trained by Asmussen, won both races in 2006 before being plagued by injury for the remainder of his abbreviated career.

Since the Iroquois was first run in 1992, three other colts have won both races: Ide (1995), Exploit (1998), and The Cliff's Edge (2003).

Full field for Turfway stakes

Turfway Park got far more than the 12-horse maximum for its opening-day feature Sunday, the $50,000 Holiday Inaugural. Among the fillies and mares set to clash in the six-furlong Polytrack race are Unspoken Word, Pola's Place, Vote Early, and School Girl.

The Holiday Inaugural, the eighth of nine Sunday races, helps to start four-plus months of racing at the Florence, Ky., track.

Mena given three-day ban

The Churchill stewards have suspended Miguel Mena for three racing days for his role in the disqualification of his mount, Geniver, from first to third in the eighth race here Wednesday.

The suspension is effective Wednesday through Friday. Mena will ride at the Fair Grounds this winter.