YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

McPeek Set to Crash Triple Crown Party

Trainer, who scored a big surprise last year with Sarava in the Belmont Stakes, is hoping to duplicate the feat with Best Minister.

May 23, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

It was implausible enough that Sarava, the product of a minor stakes race on the Preakness undercard, would win last year's Belmont Stakes. But now Ken McPeek, who trained Sarava, will try to trap the same lightning in the same bottle with another colt on June 7.

Like Sarava, who paid $142.50, the biggest win price in Belmont history, Best Minister skipped the first two Triple Crown races and won the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico. Best Minister's victory came last Saturday, a couple of hours before Funny Cide added the Preakness to his Kentucky Derby prize chest and became yet another recent candidate to sweep the Triple Crown.

Sarava's owners paid only $20,000 -- entry and starting fees -- to run in the Belmont. It will cost Best Minister's camp $100,000 more, because the colt wasn't nominated, first for $600, later for $6,000, before the Triple Crown deadlines early this year. To recoup their entire $120,000 outlay, Best Minister's owners need to finish first or second in the $1-million Belmont. The winner gets $600,000 and second place is worth $200,000.

"The timing is super," McPeek said. "The horse is doing good and you only get one chance to win the Belmont.

"This is a horse that can run all day."

At Churchill Downs on Thursday, Best Minister was back on the track for the first time since his three-length victory over favored During in the 1 1/16-mile Sir Barton, which was run over a rain-splattered track that was listed as good. Helen Pitts, an assistant trainer and exercise rider for McPeek, was tested just to stay aboard.

"He just about bucked me off," Pitts said. "He thinks he's King Kong right now."

McPeek, who was in Brazil buying horses and missed the Sir Barton and the Preakness, said that he would like to have Edgar Prado ride Best Minister again, but Prado, who rode Sarava to his Belmont victory, is committed to ride Dynever this time. Shane Sellers, who rode Best Minister once last year, is expected to get the Belmont mount.

Best Minister, a son of Deputy Minister and the Halo mare Best Of Memories, was bred and is owned by a Kentucky-based partnership headed by John Phillips, owner of Darby Dan Farm in Lexington. The Best Minister group includes Dan Issel, the former NBA player and coach. Phillips' grandfather, John Galbreath, besides owning the Pittsburgh Pirates, won the 1963 Derby and Belmont with Chateaugay, the 1967 Derby with Proud Clarion and the 1974 Preakness and Belmont with Little Current.

Little Current, the maternal great-grandsire of Best Minister and Funny Cide, is usually at the head of the list of those might-have-been Triple Crown champions. Running in the 100th Derby, which drew 23 horses and led to the Churchill Downs rule that restricts the field to 20 runners, Little Current finished fifth despite repeated traffic problems. He was then seven lengths the best in the Preakness and the Belmont.

Best Minister had never run in a stake before the Sir Barton. His 2-year-old season was only two races, cut short by a case of colic that sidelined him until mid-March this year. In his fifth start, a month before the Sir Barton, Best Minister broke his maiden at Keeneland, winning by 12 lengths over an off track at 1 1/8 miles. The colt has never run a race shorter than 1 1/16 miles.

Other than they're both Belmont horses, there are other Best Minister-Sarava similarities. Sarava went into the Belmont with earnings of only $96,851. Best Minister's purses total $100,050. Sarava's Belmont victory came in his ninth start at eight racetracks. In Best Minister's six races, he has run at five different tracks, and as Sarava did with War Emblem, he'll be trying to foil another Triple Crown bid.

Despite his Belmont victory, McPeek had a rocky year. By the time the Belmont was run, Harlan's Holiday, seventh as the Derby favorite and fourth in the Preakness, had been taken away from McPeek and given to trainer Todd Pletcher. Then Sarava, preparing for the Travers, broke a cannon bone and by December had been turned over to trainer Bob Baffert. Sarava's debut as a 4-year-old is expected to be next month at Churchill Downs.

The addition of Best Minister brings to eight the number of definites for the Belmont. The others are Funny Cide, Empire Maker, Atswhatimtalknbout, Scrimshaw, Dynever, Ten Most Wanted and Colita. Possibles include Midway Road, Outta Here and two horses -- Christine's Outlaw and Alysweep -- who are running Saturday in the $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park.


Seeking her ninth consecutive victory, Azeri will face only five rivals as she tries to repeat in the Milady Handicap on Saturday at Hollywood Park. The reigning horse of the year will carry 125 pounds, spotting the rest of the field between eight and 14 pounds. This is the field, with weights, in post-position order: Enjoy, 113 pounds; Tropical Blossom, 111; Damaschino, 114; Azeri, 125; Affluent, 117; and Keys To The Heart, 115.


This Weekend at Hollywood Park

Major stakes races at Hollywood Park this weekend. First posts: Tonight, 7; Saturday-Monday, 1:20 p.m.

* Saturday: $200,000 Milady Breeders' Cup Handicap (Grade I, 1 1/16 miles, dirt).

* Sunday: $100,000 Will Rogers Handicap (Grade III, mile, turf).

* Monday: $350,000 Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap (Grade I, 1 1/8 miles, turf); $350,000 Shoemaker Breeders' Cup Mile (Grade I, turf); $150,000 Lazaro S. Barrera Memorial Stakes (Grade II, 7 furlongs, dirt).

Los Angeles Times Articles