Is late qualifier King Fury tough enough to complete McPeek’s personal Triple Crown?

King Fury doesn’t have much in common with stablemate Swiss Skydiver, the most recent Triple Crown entry trotted out by trainer Kenny McPeek, but the chestnut colt’s appetite is in the same ballpark as the 2020 Preakness Stakes winner.

“I believe the faster they eat, the faster they run,” McPeek said. “He’s got a great appetite right now. When a horse doesn’t eat, they don’t run. That’s one thing that Swiss Skydiver’s got. She’s very hungry every day. She gets all that energy in her system and he does too. When they do that, they perform better.”

Swiss Skydiver, the sixth filly to win the Preakness, had raced eight times as a 3-year-old prior to winning that race. King Fury has three career wins in six starts, but five of those were as a 2-year-old; he’s 1-for-1 as a 3-year-old after winning the Grade III Stonestreet Lexington Stakes — one of the final two points-earning races — as an 18-1 underdog on April 10 to get within striking distance of a Kentucky Derby entry.

McPeek, an Arkansas native who graduated from Tates Creek High School and the University of Kentucky, continued working King Fury as if that opportunity was inevitable and, following several defections, was proved prescient Friday when Dream Shake and Hozier both withdrew from contention. He moved up to No. 18 on the Derby leaderboard following withdrawals by Caddo River and Get Her Number on Sunday.

On Tuesday, King Fury was installed as a 20-1 shot on the Derby morning line, coming out of post position No. 16 in a full 20-horse field Saturday.

King Fury, named after boxer Tyson Fury, won his maiden race at Churchill Downs last September and won there again the next month. He finished fifth there in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, a Grade II race, in his final 2-year-old start.

“This is a really good horse and I’m more glad for the owners that he drew in because I think he deserves a shot and will handle the mile and a quarter with no trouble,” McPeek said. “We were anticipating that there would be some horses coming out. Three weeks out we needed a few defections, and we’ve gotten ‘em and that’s great.”

Road to the Derby

King Fury will vie to become the first progeny by Curlin, the 2007 and 2008 Horse of the Year and a racing Hall of Famer, to win the Derby. Two of his offspring have won Triple Crown races: Palace Malice took the Belmont Stakes in 2010 and Exaggerator won the Preakness in 2013.

Bought for $950,000 by Paul Fireman of Fern Circle Stables in 2019, King Fury by far boasts the highest purchase price of any McPeek-trained horse to enter the Derby; the previous leader, Deputy Warlock, sold for $220,000 in 1998. (Swiss Skydiver, for another comparison, was a $35,000 yearling.)

“I’ve won the Preakness and the Belmont, so I’d like to get my own little Triple Crown,” said trainer Kenny McPeek.

“I’ve won the Preakness and the Belmont, so I’d like to get my own little Triple Crown,” said trainer Kenny McPeek.

Fireman, formerly the chief executive officer of Reebok and a relative newcomer to the sport, eventually partnered on King Fury with Goncalo Borges Torrealba of Three Chimneys Farm in Midway. McPeek has worked with Fireman over the last five or six years.

“This was his biggest dive in, financially, on the price of this horse,” McPeek said. “ … They both want to play at the high end and come up with these types of horses, and I’m thrilled for both of them. They’re both really excited, as you should be.”

McPeek believes a 60-day layoff between the end of the 2-year-old season and the Lexington Stakes, the credit for which he gives veterinarian True Baker, was a difference-maker for King Fury. McPeek thinks he ran him too hard at the end of last season; if he could do it over again, he would not have placed him in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in early November, a Grade 1 race in which the colt finished seventh, and which was claimed by Derby morning-line favorite Essential Quality.

That break let King Fury fill out more, and his speed figures from the Lexington Stakes compare well to those of many of the top Derby contenders. He’ll probably go off as a long shot on Saturday — Bovada put him at 45-1 on Monday before Mike Battaglia set his morning-line odds at 20-1 on Tuesday — but the colt’s beaten the odds a couple of times already just by getting into the field.

If his appetite for defiance continues to match that of his stomach, King Fury could have a big day in the ring. It’d also deliver a long-sought feather to the cap of McPeek, whose best Derby finish in six starts was Tejano Run’s second-place effort in 1995.

“I’ve won the Preakness (Swiss Skydiver, 2020) and the Belmont (Sarava, 2002), so I’d like to get my own little Triple Crown,” said McPeek. “Winning those kinds of races takes a lot of luck and takes a lot of horse power, you know? And clients, and certainly money. There are guys that get more opportunities and there are guys that get less. And I think we’ve ran respectable in all of ‘em. …

“Any time you’re knocking around the bull’s-eye, that’s good. And this is another horse that’s made that way. He’s a horse that fits and deserves the chance.”

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