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Kenny McPeek and his historic Magdalena Farm are writing their own CInderella story in TB racing

Magdalena Farm -- 116 acres of history -- is now home to racing's Kenny McPeek and McPeek Racing. (Photo by Susan Lustig McPeek)

Magdalena Farm — 116 acres of history — is now home to racing’s Kenny McPeek and McPeek Racing. (Photo by Susan Lustig McPeek)

By Kristy Robinson Horine
Special to NKyTribune

Most folks would admit there’s just something about the land in Kentucky. Maybe it is the variety of physical features. Maybe it’s in the water. Maybe it’s in the history of those who struggled to live on it.

Kenny McPeek (Photo by Susan Lustig McPeek)

Kenny McPeek (Photo by Susan Lustig McPeek)

Maybe it’s a combination of all those things.

But one thing is for sure — if a piece of land could have a Cinderella story, Cinderella’s new name would be Magdalena Farm, and her prince charming would be called Kenny McPeek.

Once upon a time …

On Tuesday, March 13, 1810, the Kentucky Gazette rolled out its daily edition. The front page held a little bit of everything: an ad for a new almanac, an article outlining the fashions in men’s coats and an occurrence of fallen meteorites.

On a page full of row after row of hand-laid type, is a single animation of a man and a horse. The opening line reads: “The high bred Imported Stallion CRAWLER …”

To most, those first few words hold little importance or interest. To horse people, though, those words give birth to a hundred thousand misty Bluegrass mornings, the creak of saddle leather, the heady smells of manure and sweet feed, and the sound of pounding hooves that will surely one day lead to a winner’s circle.

“Crawler is a beautiful bay, full fifteen and a half hands high, elegantly formed, remarkably active, and in point of pedigree inferior to no horse on the continent,” the article reads. “The farmers in this part of the country have now an admirable opportunity afforded them of improving their stock of horses by crossing with the English blood; they may probably never again have it in their power to effect this desirable object on the same moderate terms.”

Magdelena, granddaughter of the farm's original owners, Capt. David and Mary Shely, is buried on the property. (Photo provided)

Magdelena, granddaughter of the farm’s original owners, Capt. David and Mary Shely, is buried on the property. (Photo provided)

The article is signed, David Shely.

Shely, a native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, was a captain in the Revolutionary War and was deeded a certain parcel of land for his service. That land just happened to be located four miles outside of Lexington on what was then known as Russell’s Road.

It was the same land that caught the eye of Kenny McPeek nearly 200 years later.

Invitation to the dance

McPeek grew up on the south side of Lexington, graduated from Takes Creek High School and then went on to study business administration at University of Kentucky, graduating with a finance degree. For the past 20 years, McPeek has been buying and training horses.

“I learned how to put my money in the right places. I put my money into property. I put my money into the stock market. I was always investing wisely in the horses I bought into,” he says.

Despite all his success, McPeek felt there was still something missing. He felt there had to be a better way, with more options to handle the horses that he cared for.

On a January 2006 trip that toured England, Ireland and Australia, he found the answer he needed.

“Before I got on the plane leaving Australia, I found eight farms in Central Kentucky that I thought suited our needs. I made arrangements before I left Australia that a Realtor would show me the properties,” he explains. “I got back into Miami, unpacked, did one load of laundry, then went straight to the airport, got on another plane to Kentucky, and signed on that farm within 48 hours.”

McPeek Racing (Photo by Susan Lustig McPeek)

McPeek Racing (Photo by Susan Lustig McPeek)

Rising from the ashes

Very much like the fairy tale Cinderella, the land that McPeek bought was smudged with cinders and ash.

The entire 115 acres needed a major restoration. Fences were down. Brush had overgrown landmarks. Water pipes had broken. Windows gaped open, devoid of glass. The wiring was dangerous. And the original farmhouse had been turned into some sort of dog kennel, long since abandoned.

“It took us a year to get the place to where we could live there. I can remember I threw a mattress on the floor of the breeding shed and slept there because it was the only building that had proper heat,” he says with a little laugh. “I worked all day and slept on the floor. We showered in the office and did that for months.”

That year, 2006, became a keystone year for McPeek and his career. He purchased the farm in January, renovated the entire parcel of land, and by August he started putting horses there. He soon learned which of his clients were loyal and which were not, always a good thing to know, he says.

McPeek with 1995 Kentucky Derby runner-up Tejano run (Photo by Susan Lustig McPeek)

McPeek with 1995 Kentucky Derby runner-up Tejano run (Photo by Susan Lustig McPeek)

As a trainer, McPeek offers something a little different, something that is more hands-on than most trainers. McPeek tends to do his own sales work, which gives him, essentially, two hats to wear: blood stock agent and trainer on the ground.

“That’s me. I get up early, run my racing division, then go check on the farm,” he says. “It’s two jobs, then, but at the same time, what else am I going to do? My hobby is horses.”

It wasn’t long before his hobby and the land’s history converged.

The longest waltz

When Sue McPeek first saw the land that her then-husband had bought, the first thing that caught her eye was the cemetery.

Sue, who is McPeek’s former wife, co-owner and business partner, says, “I was fascinated and so excited. These people lived on the land, they worked there, they died and were buried there. Who were these people?”

The cemetery was in just as much disrepair as the remainder of the land. The stones, some of which dated to the 1700s, were broken or knocked over. Brush had overtaken the hilltop and it took quite some time to clear it up, match up foot stones with headstones and do the necessary research that would shed some light on the people whose bones rested underground.

What Sue found only strengthened the McPeek resolve to make good on the land.

The original owners were Capt. David and Mary Shely. They had a son named John. John married a woman who appears to be the only daughter of George A Webber and Sarah Stodghill Webber. That daughter’s name was Magdalena.

There are 11 headstones for Shely family descendants in the Magdalena Farm cemetery. (Photo provided)

There are 11 headstones for Shely family descendants in the Magdalena Farm cemetery. (Photo provided)

“To honor her, that’s why we named the farm Magdalena,” Sue says. “Magdalena’s stone is one of the oldest of 11 stones in the cemetery. She was married just shy of her 16th birthday and died right around the end of the Civil War. She had several children and contributed to the history of the area and the history of the United States.”

While some of the Shely descendants remained in or near the Lexington area, others moved westward, becoming some of the very first Texas rangers. In the 1860s, the Shely family patented the Shely Fiber Breaker, a machine which was used to harvest hemp.

In addition to that, the land was likely one of the first great thoroughbred farms in Kentucky. Crawler, the “high bred imported stallion,” stood at stud some 65 years before the running of the very first Kentucky Derby.

The breeding shed, where McPeek slept shortly after purchasing the farm, was likely built in the 1940s and became one of the first commercial breeding operations in the state.

“Seattle Slew’s mother was conceived there. Silver charm’s mother was conceived there. Kentucky Derby winner Venetian Way was conceived there, and that’s just in the modern era,” McPeek says. “It’s a really cool, historic place. There is a chance that [was where] the breeding shed was in the 1800s. Part of the history would have to be fiction because no one would be able to know the whole truth.”

Despite the lengthy history, real or imagined, there is always the promise of the future.


Courting happily every after

Today, Magdalena Farm is a vibrant part of McPeek Racing. Fences and barns are adorned in the proud blue McPeek Racing colors. Horses work out on a $300,000 turf course. They cool down in walking rings and are tucked in at night by McPeek and staff.

As with the historical farm matriarch, Magdalena, the equine matriarch, My Baby Baby, is princess of the land. My Baby Baby is a 10-year-old mare, named for McPeek’s daughter. The mare is a multiple-graded stakes winner and lends hope to McPeek’s vision of happily ever after.

“Now, today, we’ve developed over 50 stakes winners since 2006. It’s the core of Central Kentucky and what we are about here,” McPeek says.

What they are about is also worth sharing.

After a major overhaul, the legendary Breeding Shed has been turned into an apartment where visitors can stay, renting the building for a week at a time. The 1,600-square-foot space is outfitted with a king-sized bed, a fold-out couch and a child’s loft, all of which sleep five people. In addition, there is a full bath and a fully equipped kitchenette.

A far cry, McPeek says, from the initial lone mattress he threw on the floor back in 2006, back where all the dreams started coming true.

“At this stage, I’m coming up on fourth all-time winning trainer at Keeneland and I’d like to be No. 1 someday,” he says. “There’s a Derby to be won and there are champions to be trained. I’ve knocked on the door of all of those.”

McPeek Racing has found success with 13 second-place Breeders’ Cup finishes and seconds and thirds in the Derby. At 52, and with that certain Kentucky something in the very land at Magdalena Farm, McPeek just might ride into the sunset of his own Happily Ever After, after all.

Kristy Robinson Horine is a freelance writer based in Paris.

You might also be interested in reading these stories from our media partner, KyForward.com:

Trainer Kenny McPeek has racing in his blood, an eye for the horse and a winning record

Kenny and Sue McPeek developing mobile app to entertain racing fans, reclaim fan base

Liane Crossley: McPeek Still savoring Blue Grass win even as he turns attention to Derby

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