ESPN Horse Racing

McPeek ends bad week with greatest win
By Beth Harris
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Ken McPeek's week didn't start well, but it ended with the biggest victory of his fledgling career.

Ken McPeek
Kenneth McPeek, left, trainer for Sarava, celebrates in the winner's circle with his wife.
Four days after being fired as trainer of Kentucky Derby favorite Harlan's Holiday, McPeek saddled 70-1 shot Sarava to a stunning upset in the Belmont Stakes.

"I'm pinching myself, of course. Who wouldn't at 70-1?'' said McPeek, whose colt spoiled the Triple Crown hopes of Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem, who faded to eighth.

Sarava returned $142.50, the largest payoff on a $2 bet in the Belmont's 134-year history.

"I'm totally surprised,'' McPeek said. "We just didn't know how good he was, course nobody did. He proved himself.''

When favorite War Emblem stumbled and nearly fell coming out of the gate, McPeek said, "I thought we got a chance.''

Bob Baffert, War Emblem's trainer, congratulated McPeek, whose barn at Churchill Downs is a short walk away.

"Good for Ken. That's great,'' Baffert said. "He's been through a lot and he gets to at least taste it.''

McPeek got his first jolt of the week Tuesday when he was fired by Jack Wolf, owner of Harlan's Holiday. Wolf moved the horse to Todd Pletcher's stable.

Wolf said he wanted the horse closer to Saratoga, where he and his wife recently bought a house. McPeek is based in Louisville, Ky., although he plans to bring his horses to Saratoga in August.

"I found out Tuesday afternoon and he left the next morning,'' McPeek said. "I'm a little confused why he left, but I don't need to worry about that. I'm not going to look back.''

Sarava's victory capped an up-and-down Triple Crown season for McPeek. He saw his top contender, Repent, get injured in the Illinois Derby, a race won by War Emblem, who was little known at the time.

"Losing Repent was the big blow, but we got beat by a pretty nice horse,'' McPeek said.

His No. 2 contender, Harlan's Holiday, went off as the highest-priced favorite in Derby history, and faded to seventh. The colt tried again in the Preakness and was fourth. He didn't run Saturday.

So McPeek went deeper into his barn and came up with Sarava, who made his graded stakes debut in the grueling 1{-mile Belmont.

"We had a lot of things coming together on this horse and we took a shot,'' he said.

McPeek, who turns 40 in August, was near tears in the winner's circle. He kept one arm wrapped firmly around his wife, Sue, who successfully battled cancer two years ago.

"Most of all, I've got a wonderful wife,'' he said.

Sue gave birth to their first child, Jennifer, while she was ill.

"If we've shown resilience, it's because we've had a lot of support from friends and people we don't know,'' she said.

McPeek, who sports a shaved head and moustache, spent Derby week hobbling around on crutches after breaking his foot playing in a pickup basketball game.

"My foot still hurts,'' he said, grinning.

McPeek has slowly been working his way up in the industry since graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1984. He didn't even bother to pick up his diploma before heading for Keeneland, where he started his career as a hotwalker.

Despite being smitten by racing, he gave the 9-to-5 life a try, and interviewed for jobs as a stockbroker in New York. But McPeek said he spent more time at Belmont Park than he did looking for jobs.

Realizing he was more comfortable in blue jeans and boots than pinstriped suits, McPeek returned to Kentucky and took out his trainer's license.

McPeek had never won a Triple Crown race before Saturday, but he'd come close. He trained Tejano Run to a second-place finish in the 1995 Kentucky Derby, and Repent finished second in last year's $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

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