Lexington-born trainer Ken McPeek’s 2012 would have concluded on a high note had the year come to a halt on the weekend after Thanksgiving, which wrapped up the Fall Meet at Churchill Downs.
McPeek ended the meet in a tie for “leading trainer” of the 21-day racing session and his 2-year-old colt Frac Daddy, a dazzling winner early in his debut early in the meet, took favored Uncaptured to the limit in a narrow loss to that rival in the $150,000-added Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. That effort established McPeek’s colt as a strong early contender for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, set to be run beneath the track’s historic Twin Spires on May 4, 2013.
But another young horse McPeek saddled for the “Stars of Tomorrow II” program on the penultimate day of the Fall Meet left a strong impression. Pure Fun had created little buzz in six previous starts that started in a $50,000 claiming race on dirt at Churchill Downs and included a lone win on the undulating turf course at Kentucky Downs in Franklin.
But on that day of racing devoted to competition among 2-year-old stars Pure Fun unleashed a sizzling 14-1 shocker in winning a one-mile allowance race on dirt by a resounding 9 ½-lengths.
The run by Pure Fun was so dazzling that McPeek decided to ship the filly west to Betfair Hollywood Park just two weeks later to take a swing at the Grade I Hollywood Starlet over the Southern California track’s synthetic Cushion Track course.
This time she entered the starting gate at 6-1 and settled in last place in a field of eight fillies that included the heavily-favored Executiveprivilege, a Bob Baffert trainee that could have wrapped up the Eclipse Award for top 2-year-old filly with a win. But it was McPeek’s filly who owned the day as she rolled past by her seven rivals in the stretch to win the $500,000 race by a length.
McPeek admits it was a roll of the dice to send Pure Fun to California for the big race, but the victory has her high on the list of contenders of the 2013 Kentucky Oaks, America’s top race for 3-year-old fillies.
“We switched her back to the dirt and she seemed to wake up,” McPeek said. “She ran on it in her first start and then I ran her on the turf five times in a row. I ran her in those races because we didn’t have many distance choices on dirt for young horses early in the year. But she ran huge that day at Churchill.”
Whenever a young horse puts up a big performance when the leaves begin to turn, the phone starts ringing with calls from prospective buyers looking for prospects for the big 3-year-old races in spring. McPeek’s phone lit up with attractive offers to purchase the Pure Fun from the Magdalena Racing partnership that lists McPeek’s wife, Susan, as its primary partner and consists of several others who reside in Louisville and Lexington.
McPeek, who purchased the filly for $22,000 from the Keeneland September Sale in 2011, said several offers were “entertained,” and one went beyond that stage.
“We actually did a deal and it fell through,” McPeek said. “So I told them that we’ve got one shot here and we should take a look at the race at Hollywood. She was doing good and I loved the way she came out of her race at Churchill. I suggested that we wheel her right back.”
Pure Fun’s brief two-week gap between races was one of several concerns weighed by McPeek. The cross-country ship was another, and Pure Fun was not nominated to the race at Hollywood Park, so a supplemental entry fee of $20,000 was required to allow her to run.
“It was actually one of the tougher calls I’ve ever made,” he said, “but it worked out great.”
With her victory in the Hollywood Starlet, Pure Fun’s career record improved to 3-1-1 in eight races and her earnings soared to $343,599.
With her late charge through her 2-year-old season behind her, McPeek plans a vacation of around 45 days for Pure Fun before he starts her back on the road that he hopes will result in the Kentucky Oaks, a race he came close to winning in 2002 when his star Take Charge Lady finished second to longshot and eventual 3-year-old filly champion Farda Amiga.
McPeek thinks that Pure Fun’s road back to Churchill Downs could run through Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. Regardless of how his game plan takes shape, it’s close to a sure bet that the members of the Magdalena partnership – named after a Central Kentucky farm operated by McPeek – will be excited about the prospects of their relatively modest investment.
“Those partnerships are a really good vehicle to get into the game on a modest level,” McPeek said. “Most of those partnerships are 20 percent shares and they’re not huge groups. There are some smaller shares in Pure Fun, but most of them are 10 and 20 percent. People seem to like it – especially in a down economy. There’s so much uncertainty with how things are going, ‘fiscal cliffs,’ elections and all of that stuff. It just seems that more people are interested in having a little piece than a whole one.”
With a milestone Grade I victory to her credit, Pure Fun’s value as a prospect for the breeding shed has soared and future success on the track can only increase her value when she finishes her races days. But what is most important for now is that the shareholders in Pure Fun are having an experience that, so far, has lived up to their filly’s name.
Her trainer is smiling, too.
“Her success when she shifted to the dirt was a big surprise,” McPeek said. “It’s been great. To see her move from being a horse that we thought was a nice filly to become a Grade I winner –wow.”
Photos by REED PALMER PHOTOGRAPHY | Churchill Downs