By Nathan Mayberg
It’s been 16 years since trainer Ken McPeek had one of those whirlwind seasons where he seems to fire one bullet after another. With the 2-year-old Signalman (General Quarters), the impressive winner of the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S. Nov. 24, McPeek is heading into the winter with the goods to make a run for the GI Kentucky Derby.
Signalman, who McPeek picked out as a yearling, has been the highlight of a banner year in which he has scored graded stakes wins with horses like Restless Rider (Distorted Humor), Eskimo Kisses (To Honor and Serve), Princess Warrior (Midshipman), Cairo Cat (Cairo Prince) and Daddys Lil Darling (Scat Daddy).
Signalman’s effort in vanquishing 13 rivals in the Kentucky Jockey Club has the veteran conditioner dreaming big. The colt is owned by a partnership that includes McPeek’s wife Sherri and their Magdalena Racing, as well as Tommie Lewis and David Bernsen.
“Overcoming a 14-horse field is pretty amazing,” McPeek said. “He’s gutsy.”
Back in 2002, McPeek had a similar embarrassment of riches with Harlan’s Holiday, who was favored in the Kentucky Derby, but finished seventh. He won the GII Louisiana Derby with Repent, who had already won the Kentucky Jockey Club, but kept running second behind highly accomplished rivals such as War Emblem and Medaglia d’Oro. When War Emblem looked like he was going to take down the Triple Crown for fun, McPeek pulled into Elmont, New York, with Sarava and spoiled the party to the tune of a 70-1 upset in the GI Belmont S. Meanwhile, 2002 also saw McPeek’s Take Charge Lady annex six stakes races, including the GI Ashland S. and the GI Spinster S.
Since then, McPeek has had plenty of success, but has not gone on this kind of a roll.
During a brief hiatus from training in 2005 to take care of his terminally ill mother, he famously picked out a yearling for $57,000 that turned out to be Hall of Famer Curlin. McPeek compares the looks of Signalman in the sales ring to that leading sire.
“Curlin had the body of a Greek God, but had a vet issue,” McPeek said. “This horse had the body of a Greek God [but without any vet issues].”
In Signalman’s case, the hammer price was even further discounted. At last year’s Fasig-Tipton October sale, McPeek scooped the son of Turkey-based sire General Quarters up for $32,000. In many ways, the modest price mirrors the story of General Quarters himself, who was bought as a yearling for $20,000 and claimed in his debut for the same price by the late trainer Thomas McCarthy. Those prices didn’t prevent General Quarters from running off with the GI Toyota Blue Grass S. and GI Woodford Reserve Turf Classic S.
To find gems like Signalman at the sales, McPeek fields a team that includes Dominic Brennan and farm manager Alan Shell, who employ a unique strategy that analyzes the speed genes of the young horses. “Going to a horse sale is the ultimate challenge,” he said. “You have to get through your horses and your clients’ budget. I won’t buy one unless I think it has graded stakes ability.”
McPeek liked the pedigree of Signalman and General Quarters. He noted the influence of Pulpit, the grandsire of General Quarters. Signalman also has the Hall of Fame turf runner Manila in his dam’s family. But McPeek isn’t focused as much on pedigree when he makes his purchases.
“I put a lot more emphasis on the conformation than the pedigree,” McPeek said. “He can make his own pedigree.”
Not to say he is dismissive of pedigrees. He’s been studying them since he was growing up in Lexington with his father, a horse owner and homebuilder. McPeek bought his first racehorses in college when he saw a dispersal book laying around in a Kentucky bank. He liked the pedigrees and flew out to Washington to buy some Thoroughbreds he ended up flipping for a profit.
He purchased Signalman in his own name and sold 40% to Lewis, a client of his whose promising graded stakes winner Ten City (Run Away and Hide) (another McPeek bargain find at $12,000) had fatally broken down in the GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity earlier that month.
Lewis named Signalman after her husband Travis, who was a signalman on destroyers and aircraft carriers in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Adding to the name’s significance, General Quarters is the Naval code for “all hands on deck.”
Lewis said she is “overwhelmed” at the colt’s early success, which included a runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Futurity and a strong third in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile prior to his breakout score in the Kentucky Jockey Club.
“I’ve been in the business 35 years and I’ve never had a horse of this caliber,” said Lewis, an Oklahoma native whose father owned Quarter Horses. Lewis met her husband working for General Electric before they decided to pursue a living buying drive-in movie theaters in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Signalman’s minority owner David Bernsen–known for partnering with Rockingham Ranch on horses such as champion sprinter Roy H (More Than Ready) and two-time GI Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Stormy Liberal (Stormy Atlantic)–has known McPeek for years, but this is their first racehorse together. Several years ago, while Bernsen was doing consulting work, he invited McPeek out to Australia to see the racing farms and business there. After that visit, McPeek ended up building Magdalena Farm, where he trains and turns out horses in a way similar to the Australian approach.
McPeek thinks a lot of the success he is having lately is because he is picking out his own horses again at the sales after a period of letting others do the selecting. Some of his best horses were those that he selected at the sales like Take Charge Lady, Repent and Tejano Run. Of his best runners, McPeek compares Signalman to 1995 GI Kentucky Derby runner-up Tejano Run, whom he bought for $20,000 at the 1993 Keeneland September Sale.
While the plan for now is to give Signalman a rest before gearing up for a return in Gulfstream Park’s GII Fountain of Youth S. Mar. 2, McPeek said the heavy lifting is over with Signalman. The foundation has been laid.
“I think the hard part’s already done,” McPeek said. “Now it’s just a matter of timing.”