04/25/2013 11:22AM

Q&A: Ken McPeek on his Kentucky Derby chances

Barbara D. Livingston

Ken McPeek grew up in Lexington, Ky., and graduated with a business degree from the University of Kentucky in 1985. He began his training career that same year and since has won more than 1,300 races for more than $56.5 million in stable earnings. Among his greatest victories was the 70-1 upset by Sarava in the 2002 Belmont Stakes and a dead-heat victory last summer with Golden Ticket in the Travers Stakes. He has been the leading trainer at Keeneland four times and at Churchill Downs twice. McPeek works a circuit of Gulfstream Park in the winter, Saratoga in the summer, and Keeneland and Churchill in the spring and fall. In 2006, he and his then-wife Sue purchased an historic 115-acre Lexington-area farm and renamed it Magdalena Farm, which is where he now makes his permanent home. McPeek has two hopefuls for the 139th Kentucky Derby in Java’s War and Frac Daddy, and a Kentucky Oaks hopeful in Pure Fun.

Age: 50

Family: daughter, Jenna; ex-wife, Sue

Java’s War cannot possibly spot the field the same kind of advantage he did in the Blue Grass Stakes and win the Derby, can he? We’ve been standing him in the gate in the mornings. Hopefully, no, he will get away with the rest of the field, although this late in the game you sure don’t want to try to change the horse’s style. We’ve definitely decided we’re not going to send him out and have him try to stay closer. He runs the way he runs.

I’m sure [his success] will depend on the pace of the race. He’ll need to settle into stride and hopefully stay out of trouble and negotiate the traffic. It’s a tall order, but winning the Derby is for anybody.

Frac Daddy will be one of the longest shots in the Derby field. Do you believe he will outrun his odds? He’s a big long-striding colt. He’s run well here at Churchill before, which is a real positive. I think he’s an improving horse. We’re hoping for a slower, heavier-type of racetrack for him. I think that would help his cause.

Pure Fun was a Grade 1 winner at 2, but in her two races this year she was third as an odds-on favorite in the Bourbonette at Turfway Park and then seventh against last weekend in the Lexington. Do you think she is coming up to the Oaks the right way? We’ve been a little behind the eight-ball with her, admittedly. She probably gained too much weight during her time off this winter, and then with the slight fever she had after the Bourbonette, my job was even trickier. I couldn’t get very aggressive in her training because I wanted to make sure she was through all that. Still, I’m very confident she got a whole lot out of the Lexington. Her running seventh by four lengths was a lot more beneficial than if I had worked her twice.

You’re the innovator and co-founder of “Horse Races Now,” a cell-phone app that provides live video, replays, and racing data. How did you come up with it? I just thought there was a real need for racing fans and horsemen to have something like this at their disposal. We’ve had 60,000 downloads in 103 countries. It’s going real well, actually. We’ve got a business plan. Has the whole process been tricky? Yes. Has it been a learning experience? Yes. Does something like this need to be done for the sport? Absolutely.

Your proudest moment in racing: I’ve had a whole lot of them. Picking out Curlin and him winning the (2007) Breeders’ Cup Classic and become the all-time money earner might have been the best. Take Charge Lady being unbeaten (in five starts) at Keeneland and the all-time leading earner at my hometown track, that stands out. Winning the Travers last summer was fun. I’ve been awfully fortunate.

It seems like your favorite aspect of the horse business is selecting and buying young horses and then developing them: I always say that finding a good horse is harder than training one. You’ve got to have the right budget. . . . A lot of things really have to come together at the sales. Working a horse sale takes as much talent as anything else in this business. It’s more a challenge to me than getting a made horse in the barn. I like to say that the Rubik’s cube of training horses actually begins at the sales.

What do you think when you hear criticism about horsemen today and how “all the real horsemen are gone”? That’s a lot of bunk. We all work extremely hard back here. There are a lot of really, really good horsemen in the game right now. The guys who survived the downturn in the economy (in 2008), they really know their stuff.

Your pet peeve about racing: We need to show our sport. We need to get it out there and show it to people. We need to open it up.

Something that people don’t know about you: I speak fluent Portuguese

If neither of your horses wins the Derby, who will? You’ve got Verrazano − when he beat [Java’s War] at Tampa, I got a real close look at him and thought he was impressive, although I said then and I’ll say now that he’s beatable. Basically, I’m focused on having our horses as ready as I can get them for Derby Day.