Horse Racing

Kenny McPeek Trainer Profile: McPeek Brings Kentucky Derby Winner Mystik Dan to Belmont

FanDuel Staff
FanDuel Staff
Kenny McPeek Trainer Profile: McPeek Brings Kentucky Derby Winner Mystik Dan to Belmont

Since taking out his trainer’s license in 1985, Kenny McPeek has a long record of success. Though his first graded-stakes wins came in 1994 with Tejano Run and Her Temper, he won the first Grade 1 races of his career with horses we still see and revere in pedigrees today: Take Charge Lady and Harlan’s Holiday. McPeek crossed the 2,000-win threshold in 2024, and his horses have captured almost $186 million in purses across almost 40 years. In addition to training, he is also active in sales and ownership, and he runs Magdalena Farm.

McPeek has trained a lot of top horses. Surface doesn’t matter; he can train a top horse on dirt, turf, or even synthetic. Age doesn’t matter either, as he has Grade 1-winning juveniles, sophomores, and older horses. The strongest connection is that McPeek has built his reputation as a trainer of route horses. All 26 of his career Grade 1 wins have come at a mile or more, and only one of those top-level wins came at a flat mile. That happened when Swiss Skydiver—already a Preakness Stakes winner—shortened up for the 2021 Beholder Mile.

Even his six juvenile Grade 1 wins have all come at 1 1/16 miles. Dream Empress, Simply Ravishing, and Restless Rider all won the Alcibiades when it was a Grade 1. (He also won it with She’s a Devil Due and Take Charge Lady in 2000 and 2001, though it was a Grade 2 then.) Noble’s Promise and Rattle ‘n Roll won the Breeders’ Futurity during its Grade 1 era, and Pure Fun stretched out to win the 2012 Hollywood Starlet.

McPeek has yet to win a Breeders’ Cup race, but his second- and third-place finishers also follow that pattern. He has seven second-place finishers and 10 third-place results at the Breeders’ Cup, including both turf and main-track races, and all of them have been at a mile or longer.

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Kenny McPeek in Triple Crown Races

Over the last two decades, McPeek has been a consistent presence in the Triple Crown horse races. Though he has yet to win more than one in the same year, he has won each of the races once.

Kentucky Derby

McPeek has run 10 horses in the Kentucky Derby. His first entrant, Tejano Run, was his only one to hit the board for a long time. In 1995, riding high off of wins in the Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park and the Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland, he chased on to finish a good second behind Thunder Gulch, holding off favored Timber Country by a head for place honors.

For many years, Tejano Run was McPeek’s only horse to hit the board in the flagship race at Churchill Downs. Even when he brought the favorite in 2002, Harlan’s Holiday, he finished just seventh. Other horses who missed the board include Java’s War, Smile Happy, and Tiz the Bomb; King Fury was well-regarded coming into the 2021 Kentucky Derby but was scratched from the race. However, McPeek’s fortunes changed in 2024 when jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. got Mystik Dan up the rail in the run for the roses to win by a nose.

Preakness Stakes

McPeek has run eight horses in the Preakness Stakes. Just as in the Derby, that history stretches back to 1995 and Tejano Run, though that first visit to the Preakness resulted in just a ninth-place finish.

He has won the Preakness once in eight tries: in 2020, he sent Swiss Skydiver on to face males in the Preakness despite a shock defeat by Shedaresthedevil in the Kentucky Oaks. The decision turned out to be the correct one: Swiss Skydiver battled gamely inside of Derby winner Authentic and scored by a neck, with the leading pair ten lengths clear of the rest of the field. Swiss Skydiver became the sixth filly to win the Preakness.

McPeek has hit the board in the Preakness three other times. Mystik Dan finished second behind wire-to-wire winner Seize the Grey in 2024. He also finished third with Lexington Stakes (G3) winner Senior Investment in 2017 and with recent allowance winner Creative Minister in 2022.

Belmont Stakes

From seven Belmont Stakes starts McPeek has won once: with his second-ever starter in the race, Sarava, in 2002. Sent off at 70-1 odds behind favorite War Emblem, who was going for the Triple Crown at the time, he ended up in a battle to the finish with Medaglia d’Oro. Sarava got the best of him, and his $142.50 win payout is still the highest in Belmont Stakes history.

Only one other horse McPeek has run in the Belmont has hit the board. The long-winded Atigun finished third behind Union Rags and Paynter as a 20-1 long shot in 2012.

Kenny McPeek in the 2024 Belmont Stakes

After the Preakness, McPeek considered both Kentucky Derby winner Mystik Dan and Kentucky Oaks winner Thorpedo Anna for the Belmont Stakes, though he made clear early on that he would not be running them against each other. McPeek decided to enter Mystik Dan in the final jewel of the Triple Crown. He is still sending Thorpedo Anna to Saratoga Race Course, but keeping her against fillies in the Acorn Stakes.

Mystik Dan

Mystik Dan was not the most consistent horse on the Kentucky Derby trail, but when he was good, he was extremely good. He broke his maiden at second asking in a dirt sprint at Churchill Downs last November, but regressed when wheeled back in an allowance two weekends later, finishing fifth as the favorite. He followed that up with another fifth in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on New Year’s Day.

Over a muddy track in the Southwest (G3) on February 3, however, Mystik Dan bounced back to earn his first graded-stakes win. Midpack early, he rallied up the fence under jockey Brian Hernandez, Jr. and opened up to win by eight lengths. He was a credible third behind Muth in the Arkansas Derby despite not getting that rail trip he loves so much.

That had him ready for the big time at Churchill Downs: from the 3 gate, Hernandez could give him that sweet rail trip once more, and he opened up midstretch and held to win the Kentucky Derby by a nose over Sierra Leone, who he’ll face again in the Belmont Stakes.

He ran well in the Preakness Stakes, though it was just too much to ask for him—or anyone—to reel in the in-form Seize the Grey after that one got a soft trip on the front end. Mystik Dan rallied for second, 2 ¼ lengths behind the winner and a head in front of Catching Freedom.

Looking ahead to the Belmont, however? He will face Seize the Grey again, but the Preakness winner is unlikely to get quite as sweet a trip as he got in Baltimore. He will have to send from the rail, Dornoch is one-way speed, and even The Wine Steward and perhaps Mindframe will be right up there to keep them honest. Saratoga playing as well for speed as it does is a point against Mystik Dan, but if the track is playing in any way fairly, then it would be no surprise for Mystik Dan to get his nice rail-rallying trip once again from the 3 gate.

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