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Randy Harvey

McPeek Turns Recent Layoff Into Big Payoff

June 09, 2002|Randy Harvey

ELMONT, N.Y. — The plane landed at the small airport in Farmingdale, N.Y., early Wednesday morning carrying four horses who had been stabled at Churchill Downs in Kentucky. Three of them, including Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem, were here for Saturday's Belmont Stakes. The fourth had bummed a ride.

Most people were shocked to see Harlan's Holiday emerge from the van an hour or so later at Belmont Park. After entering the Derby as the favorite, he had finished a badly beaten seventh and had not redeemed himself with a fourth-place finish in the Preakness. His connections had decided that his Triple Crown campaign should end there, so there seemed to be no reason for him to be here.

Explaining later, owner Jack Wolf said that he had decided to change trainers, moving the horse from Ken McPeek at Churchill Downs to Todd Pletcher at Belmont. Trying to soften the blow, Wolf said that he has moved to Saratoga, N.Y., and wanted the horse closer to his home.

It wasn't the worst day of McPeek's life. That day was two years ago, when his wife, Sue, learned after a visit to the dentist that she had a cancer growing inside her mouth. She was pregnant at the time, and, before chemotherapy treatments could begin, doctors had to induce labor. Both mother and daughter are fine now.

So McPeek never will be quite as distraught by anything that happens on the job now as he might have been before. But he still felt like he had been kicked by a horse, instead of merely being fired from one.

"I was a little confused about why he left," McPeek said Saturday.

He still had a horse in the Belmont, although it didn't appear to most people as if it was much of a race horse. Sarava, who won a race on the Preakness undercard three weeks ago at Pimlico but had never been tested against really good horses, started at 30-1 and, by post time Saturday, was at 70-1. In 133 previous Belmont Stakes, no horse had ever overcome such odds to win. So, of course, that's what Sarava did, win. A $2 bet paid $142.50.

"I believe if something bad happens to you, something good is bound to happen to you later in your life," McPeek said.

*

For the life of me, I'll never figure out horse racing.

The only thing that makes me smarter than most of the record crowd of 103,222 on Saturday at Belmont Park is that I didn't bet.

If I had, there's no chance I would have bet on Sarava.

All the answers in horse racing are usually found in the Daily Racing Form. The problem is that the charts make a lot more sense after a race than before. But if you look at Sarava's chart, even now, there is no solid reason to bet him unless you see something in the name of his owners, New Phoenix Stable.

People a lot smarter than I am will tell you that.

The New York Daily News handicapper Saturday dismissed Sarava as an "honest, grinding sort."

Andrew Beyer, the Washington Post guy who knows as much as anybody about the sport, said Sarava was "terribly overmatched."

McPeek rattled off some fractions from the horse's victory in the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico and said "some of the handicappers have to do a little math."

But, asked if he thought at the start of the Triple Crown races that Sarava was a Belmont horse, McPeek admitted, "Absolutely not."

So maybe he was right initially, when he talked about bad times turning into good times, and that horse racing is really all about karma.

That's as good a way to bet as any.

*

Or maybe it's just that the sun doesn't shine on the same horse's rump every day.

After finally convincing virtually everyone in the Preakness that his Kentucky Derby win was no fluke, War Emblem, trying to become only the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown races, stumbled out of the gate. Instead of running out front as he prefers, he learned how the other half lives, getting sand kicked in his face while looking for some breathing room along the rail, and finished an exhausted eighth.

"This horse, from the start, we were doomed," his trainer, Bob Baffert, said.

He said if he'd had a walkie-talkie to communicate with jockey Victor Espinoza, he would have told him to give it up before they hit the quarter pole. Why take a chance of the horse getting hurt?

A lot of horse people, most of them probably jealous of Baffert's eight wins in Triple Crown races, will tell you that this proves once again that he isn't the trainer his record indicates he is. Or that he thinks he is. This was the third time in six years he'd entered the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown and the third time he came up short, this time way short.

I would counter that a trainer doesn't get in the position to win one Triple Crown, much less three, if he doesn't know what he's doing.

When Wayne Lukas said before the Preakness that Baffert "has been on scholarship his whole life," Baffert said, "They don't give scholarships to dummies."

Like when he finished second with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in '98, Baffert didn't act as if somebody had died when he lost this one.

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