12/05/2002 12:00AM

Not over till 'Lady' runs


HOUSTON - The roller-coaster ride that has been trainer Ken McPeek's year may finally come to an end Saturday at Sam Houston Race Park. McPeek's journey has been so glorious - yet so bumpy - that he will be saddened, but undoubtedly relieved, when it's over.

"This will be our last big weekend of the year," McPeek said Thursday.

McPeek will travel to Houston early Saturday in plenty of time to saddle Midnight Cry in the Great State Challenge Juvenile Fillies and Take Charge Lady in the Great State Challenge Distaff. Both horses figure to be favorites, with Take Charge Lady an overwhelming one.

Take Charge Lady is one of the few variables to remain constant through McPeek's memorable year, in which his purse earnings could exceed $6.5 million. Owned by the Select Stable of Jerry and Feye Bach, Take Charge Lady was one of three 3-year-olds who gave the trainer such great hope in January - and by winning two Grade 1 races and more than $1.26 million, she has held up her end of the deal.

The year was more volatile for some of McPeek's other stars.

Harlan's Holiday won the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass Stakes, then was taken from McPeek by owner Jack Wolf and given to Todd Pletcher after being beaten in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Repent, owned by Select Stable, became the favorite for the Kentucky Derby by winning the Louisiana Derby, but was injured in April. After returning in August with a superb runner-up finish in the Travers, he ran poorly in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then was declared out again with another injury.

Finally, Sarava - who wasn't even on the Triple Crown radar screen in January - posted the biggest upset in Belmont Stakes history when he won the June 9 classic at 70-1, but that was his last race for McPeek. Last week, co-owner Gary Drake said the colt was being transferred from a Kentucky farm to Bob Baffert's California stable while still on the comeback trail from an injury suffered in July.

Through all of the triumph and turmoil, McPeek has maintained a professional outlook, seldom allowing himself to get too high or too low. The latest development with Sarava, he said, "was easier to take because he hadn't been in the barn. It wasn't like we were all coming in and looking at him every day.

"It also wasn't like we weren't doing our job. A lot of trainers have had to ask themselves, 'How do you perform so well and lose a horse?' Is something like this unheard of? Of course not."

McPeek said he has drawn strength in dealing with such difficult issues primarily from his years of experience as a trainer and from the perilous situation his wife, Sue, emerged from in the last several years. Sue McPeek is a cancer survivor who gave birth to their only child, daughter Jenna, in October 2000.

"The main thing is I've dealt with Gary [Drake] and that whole situation, told him and the other people involved square up what I thought," he said. "It's over with. It's done. They've made their decision, and we're all going to live with it."

McPeek, who won his first training title by sending out 15 winners at the recently ended Churchill Downs meet, said he is encouraged by the numbers he has accumulated during the last year. He has a roster of some 25 to 30 clients and will have as many as 100 horses at his disposal next year.

"This barn does not revolve around one or two horses," he said. "There is a depth of owners, and not a lot of horses for any one guy. You can afford to lose a client or horse more often because of the bigger foundation. There's more security this way.

"We'll come to Houston hoping to end our year on another high note, then get ready for another big year. There's no other way to go about it."