kenny mcpeek has a forever weekend

By Dick Jerardi

Kenny McPeek has never had the owners who spend millions at the sales. Never been considered for an Eclipse Award as the nation’s top trainer. Never been recognized for what he is – one of the sharpest, most well-rounded, risk-taking horsemen in the world.

Think about it. It was McPeek who bought Curlin for $57,000. It was McPeek who sent a filly, Swiss Skydiver, to the 2020 Preakness to upset Derby winner and eventual Horse of the Year Authentic. Now, it is McPeek who became the first trainer since 1952 when the legendary Ben Jones had all those regally-bred Calumet Farm horses to win the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks in the same year.

That he did with his long-time sidekick Brian Hernandez who delivered a well-considered front-running ride Friday on Thorpedo Anna to win the Oaks before a daring rail skimming masterpiece to get 18-1 Mystik Dan home in the Derby by two desperate noses over Sierra Leone and Forever Young, made it just perfect.

I’ve known Kenny for 20 years. Our Let’s Go Racing producer Bruce Casella was Kenny’s fraternity brother and tells the story of Kenny at the University of Kentucky without too many textbooks, but always with a copy of the “Bloodhorse.’’ Through all the years, he’s never changed – smart, funny, dedicated, innovative, unafraid.

And now, after 2,023 wins, $124 million in purse earnings, 120 graded stakes wins, victories in such prestigious races as the Blue Grass, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Travers, Alabama and Ashland, over 25 hours in his native Kentucky, he won the two biggest races for 3-year-old fillies and 3-year-olds, the Oaks and the Derby.

It all took place at Churchill Downs, celebrating Derby and Oaks 150, with 265,000 fans over the two days, with record Derby Day handle ($320.5 million) and record Derby handle ($210.7 million).

And it all culminated with the first three-horse Derby photo since 1947 after a stretch run nobody will ever forget. Hernandez was rightly praised for his trip that never left the rail. He was, McPeek said, the reason for the win. Some will downgrade it because of the perfect trip, but I think that would be a mistake. Consider that the horses that were 1-2-3 after a half mile finished 11th, 17th and 15th respectively. Also consider that the horses that were 17th, 16th, 13th and 18th after a half mile, finished second, third, fourth and fifth.

Mystik Dan was sixth early so much closer to the pace than all the horses closing at the end. Derby favorite Fierceness was third early before fading badly to finish 15th, 24 1/2 lengths behind Mystik Dan, continuing trainer Todd Pletcher’s bizarre Derby run. Pletcher has had 35 of his Derby horses coming in off a final prep win. Their Derby record is 35-1-0-3, with an average Derby finish of 11th, 20 lengths behind.

Unlike Sierra Leone, who cost $2.3 million, Mystik Dan was a homebred by $10,000 sire Goldencents out a mare McPeek trained that was 4-for-23 in her career. Thorpedo Anna is by $5,000 sire Fast Anna and cost $40,000 at a yearling sale in 2022.

There is that and there is the decision McPeek made before Mystik Dan won the Feb. 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. McPeek explained on Let’s Go Racing that he got Mystik Dan out of Oaklawn where the weather was awful and to the Fairgrounds in New Orleans so he could train. It was that decision that had Mystik Dan in peak form for the Southwest when he ran essentially the same race he ran in the Derby.

Only no horse could get close to him that day when he won by 8 lengths. Two horses got very close to him in the Derby. Sierra Leone is two noses from being unbeaten in five starts. Forever Young is two noses from being unbeaten in six races after taking the worst of it in a 100-yard bumping match with Sierra Leone which followed a terrible start that took him completely out of early position. The Japanese horse was absolutely brilliant in defeat. Hard for a horse to run much better and lose, showing just how hard it is to win the Derby.

McPeek completed a personal Triple Crown with his first Derby win. He won the Belmont Stakes with Sarava in 2002 and that Preakness in 2020 with a filly. With the Oaks/Derby sweep, the resume is gathering Hall of Fame steam, especially when you consider the context. McPeek said it best when he noted after the Derby that he wasn’t doing it and has never been doing it with Calumet horses. He’s just continuing to get it done – sale after sale, year after year, race after race.

Now, after 13,485 races, he has the Oaks and the Derby and they are forever.

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