03/26/2009 11:00PM

Title or no, memorable meet for McPeek


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Regardless of what happens during the final three weeks of Gulfstream Park's season, it has already been a great meet for Ken McPeek, who entered Saturday's program deadlocked with perennial champion Todd Pletcher for the top spot in the trainer standings with 25 wins each.

Pletcher and McPeek will start sending horses back north in earnest beginning next week, leaving behind only skeleton stables to duke it out for leading trainer honors. And while McPeek would love to notch his first Gulfstream title, he's not going to force the issue in quest of that goal.

"We'll leave a scattering behind while continuing to focus on what's best for each individual horse," McPeek said during training hours on Friday. "We'll do our best until we're done here and if it's enough to win the training title, it's enough. Whether we get it or not, it's still been a great meet."

McPeek, 46, has been coming to Gulfstream on a regular basis since the mid-1990s, save for the winter of 2007 when he took a leave of absence from training horses to pursue other racing interests. But McPeek has taken a far more aggressive approach to the Gulfstream meet this time around than he has in the past.

"I've been coming to Gulfstream for 12 or 13 years in a row now, other than the one year I took off, and we've always had fun down here," said McPeek. "But I decided to consolidate all my horses for the first time this year rather than maintain strings at the same time in New York and Kentucky as I had done in the past. That more or less diluted our program and was a bad move."

McPeek said he had as many as 45 horses at Gulfstream this winter, and plans on having an even greater presence here in the years to come.

"I'm going to bring more next year," he said. "If we don't win the title this winter, we'll definitely be part of it again next season. I'm still in the rebuilding stage since taking the time off and I think the fact we were even competitive in the standings in 2009 was a pretty good accomplishment. I'm as proud of that as anything we've done so far this year."

Ward optimistic about Beethoven

Trainer John Ward said Friday that he was encouraged by the progress Beethoven has made in the 48 hours since announcing his Kentucky Derby hopeful would have to bypass the Florida Derby due to a minor injury.

Ward informed track officials early Wednesday morning that Beethoven would not be entered in the Florida Derby after discovering what he called a small spot on the colt's tendon the previous evening.

"It looked great today," Ward said Friday morning. "If you didn't know what you were looking for you couldn't find it."

Ward said he's still trying to determine whether the injury was caused by a rap or is a strain that could lead to far more serious issues.

"If it's just a rap, it's like you or I banging our leg against a table and getting a little bruise," Ward explained. "If it's a strain, it's like one of us banging our leg on the table and breaking a bone. One issue is temporary and the second could be far more serious. I couldn't be happier with the progress he's made over the past 48 hours but, remember, I always tend to err on the conservative side in these matters."

Ward said Beethoven is scheduled to ship to Kentucky with the remainder of his stable on Tuesday and did not say with any certainty whether his colt should be ruled out of the Kentucky Derby picture.

"Hopefully we're just going to lose a race with all this rather than a whole season," said Ward. "Under a best-case scenario, I guess it's possible he could show up in the entries again somewhere down the line."

Ward was even happier later Friday afternoon after watching Dr. Pleasure beat a good group of high-priced optional claiming horses going a mile. The victory was the second in a row for Dr. Pleasure, who, like Beethoven, is owned by John Oxley.

Zito's pair tunes up for stakes

Trainer Nick Zito sent out two of his top 3-year-old prospects, Rocketing Returns and Nowhere to Hide, to work a half-mile at Palm Meadows on Friday. Rocketing Returns went a bullet half-mile in 47.00 seconds while Nowhere to Hide covered the distance in a more leisurely 48.60 in his first work since finishing fourth following an eventful trip in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Zito said Rocketing Returns remains on target for Aqueduct's Bay Shore on April 11, and he's keeping his options open with Nowhere to Hide.

"The Illinois Derby comes back a bit quick for him, so we'll probably take a look at either the Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, or Lexington," said Zito.