03/10/2006 12:00AM

McPeek's career takes another turn

Ken McPeek and Kansas City Boy at Churchill Downs in February 2005, about two months before he gave up training for a while.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Ken McPeek had reached a point where he felt he had options. He quit training, tried out a different aspect of the horse business, and essentially took time to evaluate his life and career.

"When your heart's not into it and you want to do something else, you need to do it," he said.

McPeek, 43, announced last April that he was turning over most of his far-flung stable to Helen Pitts, his assistant of several years. On July 1, the change became official, with McPeek becoming a consultant and bloodstock agent for the deep roster of clients he had built during 20 years of training.

He spent the last eight months or so attending horse sales and traveling extensively to such faraway places as Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and, most recently, Hong Kong. And although he bought more than $6 million worth of horses and said he stayed "plenty busy," he was not fully satisfied with his new role.

So McPeek announced recently that he intends to get back into training, albeit in somewhat of a different way than when he quit. He and his wife, Sue, closed Wednesday on a 115-acre tract of farmland, part of the former Pillar Stud, in northwest Lexington, Ky. McPeek will use the farm as his primary training base while also having horses stabled at no more than one racetrack. He said he will be ready to run horses as early as the Keeneland meet, which starts April 7, and ultimately may have about 50 horses in his name.

"I was looking for another angle, and I thought this was something I would really enjoy," he said. "Before, I had horses on three different circuits, and it's hard to keep track of all of them, to be honest. You're on the road a lot, dealing with all the details, and you get separated from dealing with the horses themselves."

McPeek calls the new facility a multi-faceted "one-stop shop," modeled primarily after the type of stable that Lee Freedman, a top Australian trainer, operates. "It's a fairly simple setup, but Lee's got it going," said McPeek.

McPeek, who grew up in Lexington, has 82 stakes wins to his credit, with his career highlight coming in 2002, when Sarava won the Belmont Stakes. Stable earnings since he began training in 1985 are almost $28.7 million, with nearly $20 million of that total coming since 2000. Last spring, suffering what he now calls "burnout," he gave it up, saying he had become spread too thin and wanted to concentrate on buying horses, an area of the business he enjoyed most. At the time, he declined to rule out a return to training, and here he is, less than a year later, getting back in.

"I guess I was like an old horse that just needed a little turn-out time," he said with a laugh.

McPeek, who spent last week at his residence in Hollywood, Fla., was scheduled to return to Kentucky on Monday to begin work on the farm. He and Sue will maintain their primary residence in Louisville while he commutes on a regular basis to the new farm.

McPeek said he and Pitts will have "some" overlap in their clientele but that Pitts will be keeping almost all of the horses currently under her care.

Pitts said Friday from Gulfstream Park, where she has 25 horses, that she will be consolidating her stable back to Kentucky within the next few weeks. She also has had eight horses at the Trackside training facility in Louisville all winter.

"Kenny gave me a great opportunity, and I'm going to continue working as hard as I can for the clients he turned over to me," she said.

By any standard, Pitts, a 31-year-old Maryland native, has done a terrific job since taking over. From 158 starters, she has 27 wins, including victories in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Turf Handicap, and Grade 2 Golden Rod.

McPeek said he will start off with about 14 older horses, most of them coming off layoffs, and will pick up 2-year-olds and other horses.