05/27/2008 11:00PM

McPeek's newfound focus pays off

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After Ken McPeek took an indefinite leave of absence from training horses nearly two years ago, it would have been difficult for anyone to believe that his stable would come back as strongly as it has, as quickly as it has.

McPeek won with 17 of his first 38 starters this spring at Churchill Downs, making him the leading trainer as the 52-day meet nears its midpoint this weekend.

"The structure before wasn't efficient, and we needed to do a better job," said McPeek, whose hiatus lasted from July 2006 to April 2007. "Now we're doing a better job. I have an excellent staff, an excellent group of clients, and some really nice horses."

McPeek, 45, said he had stretched himself too thin in prior years, and that now he is focusing primarily on meets at four tracks: Churchill and Keeneland in the spring and fall, Saratoga in the summer, and Gulfstream Park in the winter.

"I made the mistake of venturing into New York and Chicago before," he said. "Those are two great racing circuits, but when you're stretched, you dilute your operation. We're stronger now because we're more consolidated. I'm basically in Louisville and Lexington, with about 50 active runners and a bunch of 2-year-olds coming up. The proof's in the pudding, you might say."

McPeek said he wouldn't be surprised if Steve Asmussen, who has far more horses at his disposal, eventually caught and passed him for the Churchill spring title, "but it's like I told my staff, as long as we keep doing what's right for each horse, we'll be fine."

Among the McPeek winners who have been particularly impressive in recent weeks were Stratostar, who has captured six straight starter-allowance races; A to the Croft, the multiple graded-stakes-placed filly who won her turf debut May 21; Hard Strike, who went through his first allowance condition at first asking on May 17; and Theregoesjojo, a 2-year-old Brahms colt who blew past two other highly regarded prospects to win his career debut Monday.

"Theregoesjojo is a really nice colt," said McPeek. "He's the kind of horse that makes you glad to come to work in the morning."

Saturday stakes come together

Fields for the three Saturday stakes at Churchill were assembled Wednesday. Here is a brief rundown of each:

* Grade 3, $125,000 Aristides: Elite Squadron will make his first start since winning the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Handicap on the May 3 Kentucky Derby program. He faces a tough crew in the six-furlong Aristides, including Indian Chant, a sharp recent allowance winner and the track-record holder (1:07.55) for the distance, and Group 1 winner Kelly's Landing. Others entered include Carnacks Choice, Esperamos, and Noonmark.

* Grade 3, $100,000 Dogwood: Alina, runner-up in the Fantasy Stakes behind the ill-fated Eight Belles, heads a short field of 3-year-old fillies in the one-mile Dogwood. Keep the Peace, Secret Gypsy, Temper Temper, and Tiz to Dream are among the challengers.

* $100,000 Opening Verse: In what shapes up as the best betting race of the three, this 1 1/16-mile turf race drew a host of veteran campaigners, including Bold Start, Inca King, Seaside Retreat, and the defending champion, Therecomesatiger.

Graeme Six getting a break

Graeme Six, winner of the Grade 3 Winning Colors Stakes here Monday, has been sent to a Lexington farm for a 30-day break "for no real reason," said trainer Tom Amoss.

"We just want to concentrate on the last third of the year with her," the trainer said.

Amoss said he and the partners who own Graeme Six "would like to think she's good enough" to be pointed to the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint on Oct. 24 at Santa Anita. Graeme Six has won three stakes this year.

Firerock Base hurt, likely retired

Firerock Base, a winner of three straight allowance races this past winter at the Fair Grounds, most likely had his career ended Monday when he suffered badly pulled suspensory ligaments and displaced sesamoids, according to veteran trainer Bobby Barnett.

"He's going to be fine in the long run, although I'm sure his racing days are finished," said Barnett. "The good news is there were no cracks or fractures. It's a shame, because he was such a good horse for us."

Firerock Base, a 4-year-old ridgling by Indian Charlie, won 4 of 10 career starts for the Dream Walkin Farms of Toby Covel and partners. He was injured and failed to finish Monday in the 1 1/2-mile Louisville Handicap on the Churchill turf.

Kidney fundraiser to be June 14

The annual five-kilometer running race in memory of jockey Dean Kutz is set for the morning of June 14 in downtown Louisville. Proceeds go to the National Kidney Foundation of Kentucky.

Kutz, who died in September 2004 at age 48 after suffering for years from kidney disease, rode more than 2,800 winners.

Registration fees are $20 and $25. More information is available at (502) 585-5433.