LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Harlan's Holiday runs with a 15-year-old four-leaf clover in his saddlecloth. His trainer, who otherwise seems like a rational man, once ended a losing streak by digging a hole and burying some chicken bones.
So is it any wonder that the least of Harlan's Holiday's curses, going into Saturday's 128th Kentucky Derby, is that he was bred in Ohio?
Only one Ohio-bred--Wintergreen in 1909--has ever won the Derby, and perhaps there's been no encore from Buckeye state horses because their trainers didn't have a lucky clover like Jack Wolf's, or a hex-chaser like Ken McPeek's.
Wolf, the Louisville-born owner of a money-management firm in Atlanta, races Harlan's Holiday, a $97,000 yearling purchase, with his wife Laurie. Wolf, turning 53 on Derby day, was given the four-leaf clover by his son Bryan 15 years ago. Wolf carried it in his wallet, but then this winter, after Harlan's Holiday had lost two consecutive races for the first time, a couple of things happened: McPeek replaced Tony D'Amico with Edgar Prado, a more experienced big-race jockey, and Harlan's Holiday began running with the well preserved clover. He hasn't lost since.
Booklet, who had beaten Wolf's horse twice, was up the track both times as Harlan's Holiday won the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Only three horses have won those two prep races and the Kentucky Derby, none since Spectacular Bid in 1979.
McPeek, 39, was running a modest stable until his breakout horse, Tejano Run, finished second to Thunder Gulch in the 1995 Derby. Asked about the pressures of training Harlan's Holiday, this year's Derby favorite, McPeek says, "That's not pressure. This is pressure: Having 15 bad horses in the dead of winter at Turfway Park, having some owners who haven't paid their bills, and having some stablehands waiting on payday for their money. Compared to that, this is gravy."
In New Orleans in the early 1990s, McPeek's clients might not have been deadbeats, but he was still having trouble paying bills, because every horse in the barn had a severe case of the slows. McPeek ended the meet by losing 20 straight races, and back home at Turfway, in Florence, Ky., the streak went past 30.
Bernie Flint, another trainer, told McPeek that he might be cursed. After all, they had visited Louisiana's famous St. Louis cemetery during the Fair Grounds meet, and neglected to perform the hoary ritual at Marie Laveau's tomb.
In the 19th century, Laveau was known as the "voodoo queen" of New Orleans, and claimed that she would go on forever. Casual historians might have actually believed her, until they realized that her daughter and a granddaughter both were named Marie Laveau too.
At the above-ground site of what is believed to be the original Marie Laveau's grave, there are instructions to take your right foot and make three Xs in the dirt nearby. According to the legend, the spirit of Madame Marie considers anything less a snub. Violators are subject to an evil spell.
"Bernie said Marie had put a gris-gris on me," McPeek said. "He said that was the reason I was losing all those races."
They weren't in New Orleans so they couldn't go back to the tomb and make the triple Xs. Flint suggested that McPeek dig a hole and bury the picked-over chicken bones.
"I did," McPeek said, "and I won a race the next day to end the streak. Then I won something like eight out of the next 12 races."
With a wry smile, McPeek told this bizarre tale outside his barn at Churchill Downs on Tuesday morning, shortly after Harlan's Holiday, with Prado aboard, had worked half a mile in 493/5 seconds. Monday's wintry conditions had changed to bright sunshine, and the temperature was up about 20 degrees. Louisville can sometimes go through all four seasons during Derby week, but the weather gods are usually on the side of Churchill Downs on the big day. Saturday is expected to be pleasant and dry, with a fast track.
Those who know McPeek will vouch for his veracity. Maybe in another life, he could launch a career writing short stories. The relevant thing here is that early this year he converted Harlan's Holiday from a speed-crazy, run-off colt into a horse who relaxes by running just off the pace. Ideally for McPeek--and in a 20-horse field like Saturday's, the whole race scenario is an educated guess not likely to happen--Harlan's Holiday will be third or fourth at the quarter pole, within two lengths of the front and ready to pounce on the leaders.
Almost 20 years ago, McPeek took a degree in business administration from the University of Kentucky and, after considering a career as a stockbroker, went to work as a hotwalker--the racetrack's bottom-rung job--for trainer Shug McGaughey at Keeneland. McPeek's father had bred horses and McPeek spent almost as much time in college studying thoroughbred pedigrees as he did his regular courses.