06/05/2017 2:40PM

McPeek not afraid to take a swing with Senior Investment

Barbara D. Livingston
Ken McPeek and Senior Investment will try to upset the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

ELMONT, N.Y. – Ken McPeek flew into New York on Sunday night from England, back in the States after sending Daddys Lil Darling overseas to race June 2 in the Epsom Oaks. If a flash of inspiration motivated that trip, a bolt of lightning ruined it.

Spooked by a storm while warming up for the race, Daddys Lil Darling lost her wits and ran off. Her jockey, the starting gate looming before his runaway mount, dismounted, and Daddys Lil Darling, though uninjured, was scratched after getting loose.

“What probably bothers me most is we didn’t get a chance to see how she could compete against those horses,” McPeek said Monday from his barn office at Belmont.

Had Daddys Lil Darling actually raced, McPeek would have been the first American trainer to start a horse in an English classic. But McPeek has another horse for an American classic on Saturday, when he’ll saddle Senior Investment in the Belmont Stakes.

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It has been 15 years since McPeek scored his only classic win, capturing the 2002 Belmont with Sarava, a 70-1 shot whose $142.50 win payoff remains the highest in Belmont history. Senior Investment finished third May 20 in the Preakness Stakes. He isn’t one of the most-fancied Belmont starters this year, but his odds won’t approach Sarava territory.

“He’s going to have to improve, and maybe a horse like Classic Empire has to move backward a little bit,” McPeek said. “We’re in with a chance though.”

The thought of running a horse in an English classic wouldn’t even flit through the mind of nearly all American trainers, but McPeek, 54, never has shied from going his own way.

In 2004, five years before trainer Wesley Ward started sending American horses to race in England, McPeek sent Hard Buck to finish second in the Group 1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. McPeek has been a regular visitor to South America and has plumbed the Thoroughbred holdings of that continent for potential imports.

A trainer since 1986, he stepped back from that position for about a year in 2005 to become an international bloodstock agent. In 2006, McPeek purchased a 115-acre parcel in Kentucky, the former Pillar Stud, and opened Magdalena Farm. McPeek breaks 45 or 50 yearlings there every season. The farm can house about 60 horses and has a European-style turf gallop. McPeek also developed his own mobile racing app, Horse Races Now.

“I’m pretty independent,” he said. “I do my own thing.”

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Sarava started his career in England and when the 2002 Kentucky Derby came around still had but one win to his credit. McPeek boldly tried him in the Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard, and Sarava won, but he rightly was treated as a rank outsider in the Belmont – until he beat Medaglia d’Oro by a half-length.

“It just shows you how much everything can change over the course of a few months with all these 3-year-olds,” said McPeek. “You can’t be afraid of running. If you’ve got one doing good, you can’t be scared to pull the trigger.”

Senior Investment enters the Belmont doing better than he’s ever done. Owned by Paul Fireman’s Fern Circle Stables, Senior Investment showed little in a pair of starts without Lasix last summer at Ellis Park, but McPeek said the horse was having problems with displacing his soft palate.

“We ended up giving him time off to take care of that, and he came back bigger and stronger, which I would have expected,” McPeek said.

Senior Investment was a fourth-start maiden winner in December at Fair Grounds, then finished first but was disqualified in a first-level allowance there in January. At Oaklawn, Senior Investment cleared that first allowance condition, and after a sixth in the Louisiana Derby, he won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Despite some trouble, he closed for third in the Preakness.

“He’s gotten better and better and better,” McPeek said. “He’s a really smart horse, and he gets where the finish line is. Every race he’s made a real good run at the wire. His running style is a little problematic – he tends to relax a little too much early – but his last race was solid, and now he has another five-sixteenths of a mile to make up the difference.”

Senior Investment is by Discreetly Mine, and his pedigree is not obviously suited to the Belmont’s 1 1/2 miles, but McPeek said he’s “100 percent confident” the colt will stay. McPeek himself selected Senior Investment for a $95,000 purchase as a yearling, in part, he said, because the horse so closely resembled his first really good horse, Tejano Run, who finished second to Thunder Gulch in the 1995 Kentucky Derby.

McPeek has been back to the Belmont twice since he won it, with Atigun’s third-place finish in 2012 his highest Triple Crown placing since the Sarava surprise 15 years back.

“It doesn’t seem that long ago, and if you’d have asked me then if that would be my only classic up to now, I’d have said, ‘Nah, surely I’d have won another one by now,’ ” said McPeek. “We’ve kind of knocked on the door.”

McPeek never has hesitated to knock. Maybe this is the year the door swings open again.