A Horse Race

Ken McPeek: an expert in sizing up horse flesh
Michael McElroy

At 5:30 a.m. on Florida Derby morning, the silhouette of Barn 16 in the stables at Hallandale Beach's Gulfstream Park gleams in watery light. Grooms lead horses from their stalls, and the only sounds are the muffled steps and occasional coughs of the animals on their way to morning exercise.

Horse trainer Ken McPeek is on his cellular alone out in the yard. Tall and balding, in his late-30s, with a face that could belong to a priest or policeman, he needs the vet to look at some X-rays before a final decision on whether a group he has put together should buy a horse for $170,000.

A chart on the wall in his sparsely furnished office shows the daily programs of the stable's 14 horses. One of them, Repent, won the Louisiana Derby two weeks before. We go and take a look. Repent's jet and marbled mass fills the stall. McPeek says we're in the presence of a likely winner of May 4's Kentucky Derby. Repent's triumph was McPeek's biggest so far and added torque to his reputation.

The trainer makes his way through horse traffic headed for the main track. He says something to his assistant, Helen Pitts, as she rides by that his Kentucky accent twists into "etnaf pawl." Pitts heads for the eight-and-a-half furlong pole. He climbs onto an observation platform that gives a panoramic view of the track and watches Pitts's horse, Copernicus, in the distance.

The other 30 or so riders display styles ranging from hesitant to standing-straight-up-in-the-stirrups, full-gallop flamboyance. There is a confident bravura to some of the men in sleeveless tops, which highlight their arm muscles. The women riders sway with easy, straight-backed grace. Ken is silent.

At 7 a.m., Ken is at the door of a stall, watching a groom scrape the hooves of a horse, which lifts each leg obligingly in turn. Black, powerfully muscled, with baleful eyes and a white slash on the nose, this is Harlan's Holiday, the McPeek stable entry for the Florida Derby. Early odds place him as the 5-2 second favorite behind oil magnate John Oxley's Booklet, which is at 2-1. Oxley is the owner of Monarchos, which took last year's Florida Derby, then triumphed in the Run for the Roses.

Ken pats his horse's rump, and his hands probe the animal's legs. "All my horses get a foot of hay in their stalls," he adds. Then, in seemingly his only concession to the day, he says: "Someone didn't take two horses' temperatures today. Any other day, she'd be fired."

A little before 10, Ken leaves for home, and by 11 -- an hour before the first post time -- a crowd is already gathering at the Gulfstream entrance on Federal Highway for the biggest event in the 90-day season. Today's million-dollar derby purse, the largest in the event's 51-year history, is backlit by the persistent statewide decline in track attendance and wagering. Attendance slipped by about 5 percent between 1999 and 2001 and has likely dipped even further this year. Gulfstream's search for nonracing solutions has generated abiding hostility in the racing industry and sharp criticism from the public.

For the past few years, in an attempt to bolster the sagging crowds, the track has brought in past-their-prime musical combos, from Rick Springfield to the Doobie Brothers. Today's offering is '70s loser group Styx (remember, ugh, "Come Sail Away"?). Opening for them is Loverboy, a Canadian ("Working for the Weekend") has-been. In his top-floor office, Gulfstream President and CEO Scott Savin predicts the pair will bring in a third of the day's 30,000 visitors. "The racing fans feel invaded by outsiders," Savin says. "While individual betting is up, the fans are dwindling. We feel that young, professional, family attendance is the way forward."

The races start at noon. At 12:30, a flurry on the clubhouse terrace erupts when O.J. Simpson arrives in green silk suit and black slippers. He limps heavily on a stick and is accompanied by a burly, impassive bouncer-type with regulation dark glasses and earring. Simpson's presence stirs a cloud of gapes and glances. He and a couple converse with theatrical gestures. Close by, a woman hisses to her companion: "Son of a bitch. I wish he'd break the other leg." After ten minutes, he leaves, an undertow of suppressed hostility seething in his wake.

McPeek has an entry, Police Alert, in one of the early races. It is the three-year-old's maiden event, and she scrambles to fourth place, slightly better than the 9-1 odds would suggest. McPeek supervises the saddling at the paddock in sunglasses and dark suit. "Guess I had to get spiffy for this," he wryly comments. He recalls something his college roommate said around 4 a.m. on the morning they graduated from the University of Kentucky. McPeek was supposed to become a stockbroker, but his roommate asked what he really wanted to do, and McPeek said he just wanted to be around horses. When the roommate said, "Go do it," McPeek put on his boots, went over to Keeneland, and by 5 a.m. had taken a job as a hot walker exercising horses. Now, he says, he reads a lot of books about inner peace; Deepak Chopra is among his favorite authors.

The crowd today is far from the typically older male groupings visible on an average track day. Peroxide, bandannas, implants, infants, grandmothers, and tattoos crowd the eye and ear.

By 2:15 p.m., Anna Schneeman, who teaches English at Miramar High School, has already won on a race and is concentrating on her racing form on the clubhouse terrace. Born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents, she is carefully pretty in black pants and top and straw hat banded with stars and stripes. This is her fourth visit to Gulfstream. The last time out, she won on Booklet, a favorite in today's derby. She refuses to disclose her winnings with a toss of tresses and a megawatt smile: "I did not bet much, but I increased my money four times."

Soon, Loverboy takes the stage. By the second number, the aging band members have worked up a film of sweat. The sun beats down on the half-empty section in front of the stage. A hundred yards away, in the paddock area, the horses in the next race are walked around the show ring. The announcer's voice is drowned out by Loverboy's pounding about the imponderables of love.

By 4:30, Anna has won another race. She remains enigmatic about the amount. "If I tell you now, it might bring me bad luck in the derby," she says.

The eighth race produces the main upset so far when Jorge "Chop Chop" Chavez steers Southland Blues home after six furlongs. The $2 trifecta pays $996 and the superfecta a respectable $5638.

About the time of the tenth race, McPeek has finished bandaging Harlan Holiday's legs and, with nothing else to do and time to burn before the biggest race of his life, the trainer drops asleep. By 5 p.m., attendance has brushed 30,000, and at 5:41, the derby gates crash open and 11 horses pound the track. Booklet instantly locks in a front running duel with Smooth Jazz, one of a pair fielded by trainer Todd Pletcher. When the horses make the final turn, Booklet and Smooth Jazz slip back into the bobbing, heaving huddle, and the crowd wails like thunder and rain. As the horses cross the line, Harlan's Holiday is in front.

In the winner's circle, the new champ's owner, Jack Wolf, and his friends from Georgia are sounding rebel yells. McPeek appears curiously, inadequately elated for someone whose career has suddenly erupted and who has won a chunk of the $600,000 first prize. "Thanks," he musters on being congratulated. "Thanks. Harlan ran a great race."

On Monday, Anna, back at her school, finally reveals that she lost a $20 bet when Booklet came in fourth but won $10.80 back on Harlan. At 3 p.m., before taking off on a plane to Dubai to look over some horses for a sheik, McPeek says, "I feel I'll win the Kentucky Derby more than once."

And Booklet owner Oxley, at his home in Boca Raton, is ruefully philosophical. "I have attended Florida Derbies for 30 years and think that Gulfstream has been on a slide for the last five years. I simply don't see how these concerts will generate any serious wager money. Instead, the track should reduce the number of daily races, raise its purses, and produce sharper odds and higher-quality races."

Booklet, he adds, will be back.

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