The Derby Journey, Part 1: Richard Keith’s Dream

The Derby Journey, Part 1: Richard Keith’s Dream

The field passes under the Twin Spires for the first time in the 1943 Kentucky Derby
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Welcome to the first in a series of articles chronicling the Kentucky Derby journey of Richard Keith, the owner of the promising three-year-olds American Dubai and Black Ops. This series will feature quotes and insights from Keith as American Dubai and Black Ops progress along the Derby trail and seek qualification points in the Derby prep races at Oaklawn Park. Enjoy!

In U.S. horse racing, the Kentucky Derby stands alone as the race every racehorse owner dreams of winning. The Breeders’ Cup Classic offers more prize money, and the Preakness has had an arguably greater impact on determining championships, but the Kentucky Derby’s rich history places it on a pedestal that no other race can match.

Part of what makes the Kentucky Derby so appealing is that it can be won by anyone. The oft-quoted phrase “a good horse can come from anywhere” exists because it is true—good horses, even Kentucky Derby winners, can come from anywhere. Some hail from the finest Kentucky farms and carry legendary silks to victory; others arise from humble beginnings to give their owners the thrill of a lifetime.

Each year, when the calendars switch from December to January, any owner with a talented three-year-old in their barn dreams of winning the roses on the first Saturday in May. One such owner is Richard Keith, who has not just one, but two up-and-coming young runners with an eye on the Derby.

The Early Days

For Keith, horses have always been a part of his life. “I grew up with my father working for people that owned racehorses.” Keith says. “When I was about 11 my father purchased a little piece of property outside of town that was in foreclosure. The summer between my sixth and seventh grade year we moved from the town to the country. That was the last time I had concrete or asphalt to play on.”

Keith’s first horse of his own came later on. “He came out of Mule Creek, New Mexico. He was an old ranch horse, and I mean old—I think I got him when he was 18 or 19 years old. He was delivered in the back of a pickup truck… I will never forget seeing him pull up to the house, head sticking out over the cab. [There was] no ramp so they put the truck in a ditch along the side of the road and pushed him out of the truck.”

The horse may have been old, but Keith learned a lot from caring for him. “I spent the better part of my teenage years with that horse. [There was] no one to teach me anything, I just had to figure it out. Now, I am not trying to tell you I am some kind of a horseman because I am not. But what I learned from that horse is the same skill I use today. What I learned is how to listen to them.”

Keith’s second horse was of a much different type: a fiery two-year-old that got his spirit from his pedigree. “[He] was just flat mean.” says Keith. “His sire was Go Man Go… a quarter horse that they could not get on the track. Why my father thought we should own him is beyond me, but I will never forget seeing that animal for the first time. He was a winner and somehow I just knew it, and I was right. Chris Jones eventually broke the horse to ride and won untold amounts of money with this horse.”

Later on, the horse suffered an injury and was returned to Keith. “He was way more horse than I could ride, but that was the first time that I knew a winner when I saw it.”

The Derby Dream

Growing up around horses, and with his father involved in racing, it was only a matter of time before Keith became interested in the sport. “I’ve had the dream of going to the Kentucky Derby since 1976, the first time I watched the Derby with a sense of what this was. I remember thinking how grand these owners must be to own such great horses. So when I was given the opportunity to enter the horse racing business, I knew just how powerful dreams are. I have not made it [to the Derby] yet, but I will continue to move in that direction and put myself in the possible position to do so.”

Keith’s first racehorse was a New Mexico-bred gelding by the name of Follow Me Home. Trained by Rodney Richards, Follow Me Home finished third in his debut at Zia Park on November 11th, 2012, but eventually rose through the ranks to compete in stakes company, finishing fourth in the New Mexico State University Handicap at Sunland Park.

It was at that same time that Keith began his quest to find a Kentucky Derby winner. “We began the journey to search out and find our possible Derby contenders at the OBS March 2015 sale. At that time the team was comprised Rodney Richards, Sharon Keith [his wife and a horse lover], and myself. We arrived via airplane on Sunday, March 15th, and the sale started on Tuesday, March 17th.”

Keith and his team would have arrived earlier, but they chose to stay at Sunland to cheer on Follow Me Home in the New Mexico State University Handicap. In some respects, it could be said that Follow Me Home’s performance is what launched Keith on to the Derby trail. “He did not win, but ran what we thought was a good race, so [that] helped give us a little courage to finally make this step up into the big leagues.”

“We spent the first day, which was [the] Monday before the sale started, just trying to cover Monday’s sale horses. At this point we were still taking handwritten notes and just trying to remember hip numbers that were on our list. This was my first time at OBS and second sale, so we were very new at this. Rodney had been to the OBS March sale for us in 2013 and purchased a couple of horses for us, but he and his father, Jerry Richards, went to that sale alone.”

“Looking back, we were asking a bit much from them but it is a part of the process that I wanted to go through on our journey in the industry. My approach to learning and understanding this business has been a very slow and steady approach. I have no background in the industry so it was all new territory to me.”

The March 2015 OBS sale of two-year-olds in training saw 325 young runners change hands for a total of more than $55 million. Two of these colts—American Dubai and Private Appeal—were purchased by Keith and his team. Keith would later buy four more horses at the April and June OBS two-year-olds in training sales, including a well-bred son of Hard Spun named Black Ops, who sold for just $20,000.

It was from these humble beginnings that Richard Keith’s Kentucky Derby dream started to become a reality.

Patient Handling

Under the care of Rodney Richards, who had trained Follow Me Home, Keith’s six two-year-olds began preparing for their racing careers. Rather than rush to get them ready for a major summer race meet like Saratoga or Del Mar, Richards took his time with the colts, saving them for later in the year.

“I don’t think we train quite as hard as some, especially the really big barns.” says Keith. “One thing I knew when I started this journey is that there must be a trainer out there just like me, one that just needed the opportunity… It took a little while, but one of the greatest things I have learned from this game is patience. I by nature am not a real patient person, but it is a great gift this game has allowed me to explore.”

“For me as an owner there is only one race I want to win. I know you have to win more to get there, but it is that one [the Kentucky Derby] that I want our horse to be his best at. I have a very special trainer, which I am sure over time you will come to know, and we definitely feed off of each other. We make each other better.”

The Road to the Derby Begins

Private Appeal was the first of the young runners to race, finishing twelfth in a maiden special weight on September 12th at Churchill Downs, but success wasn’t far off. On November 6th, the unheralded Black Ops made his debut in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill. Bettors showed little support for the inexperienced colt—he was sent off at nearly 80-1—but Black Ops turned heads by rallying from far behind to finish second. One week later, American Dubai was entered to race in a similar event at Churchill, and despite being bumped at the start, the son of E Dubai rallied strongly to win by 2 ¾ lengths.

The culmination came on November 28th when Black Ops returned to action in an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill. Racing over a sloppy track, Black Ops showed speed from the start while dueling for the lead, then drew off to win by 2 ¾ lengths. His final time of 1:45.75 seconds was just 0.27 seconds slower than Airoforce ran while winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) later in the day.

Thus, in the span of just fifteen days, two of Richard Keith’s Kentucky Derby hopefuls had won races in impressive fashion, earning them a chance to continue along the road to the Derby. Better still, both colts had won at Churchill Downs—the home of the Derby—proving that they can handle the track at Churchill.

Since then, American Dubai and Black Ops have both shipped to Oaklawn Park on Arkansas, where Keith is hopeful that his colts will face a stiff test on the road to the Derby.

“Being small is very difficult, especially when you want to play at this level. In 2014, we took a little group of horses to Oaklawn. One [reason was] because we knew in the future that [Oaklawn] was where we wanted to be, and because we knew the competition would be there.”

“One stipulation I have as an owner is ‘find me the best horses to run against’ because running with the average or below is nothing. I think athletes only get better when they are challenged. I see trainers looking for the easiest race they can get all the time; that’s not how we do it, we want the best group of horses we can get… I believe you have to let happen what is going to happen. Once you start trying to manipulate life, events, or anything else you are then your worst enemy.”

Keith admits that taking this approach isn’t easy. “Everyone wants to win, so pushing far beyond the normal boundary and asking to get beat takes some grit. And if you want to be an owner you have to be ready to lose at every out or I think you are in it for the wrong reasons. So we went to Oaklawn and stayed at a training center outside of town and hauled in to run. Oaklawn is not a surface that plays well to hauling in, but we did what we had to do and it was a tough winter—the weather was terrible and training was tough as well. But a little horse named Follow Me Home went there and earned us stalls at Oaklawn.”

Dreaming of 2016

But to keep racing at Oaklawn, Keith knew he needed quality horses, and when 2015 arrived, “we opted not to return as we knew we did not have the horse power to be there.” Keith explains. “This was a big learning year for me; now it was time to study just how I was going to get to the Derby… So when this year rolled around and we applied for stalls at Oaklawn, we knew it would be tough. We placed numerous calls to Pat Pope [Oaklawn’s racing secretary] and he understood that we would not ask for stalls unless we thought we could do right by him and ourselves by being there. Because we do what we say we’re going to do, we will do our level best to run all we can run at Oaklawn.”

“Oaklawn is a great race track and Hot Springs is a great racing town.” adds Keith.“One of my purchase criteria this year was to find a horse that could win the Arkansas Derby. I know many think there are more prestigious Derbies to win, but for me, the Arkansas Derby would be a great honor just to run in. So here we are in Arkansas, and that being said, we feel a sense of loyalty to [Oaklawn Park] and have rejected opportunities to run in other places… this puts us in a bit of a tight spot as the number of opportunities to run on the Derby trail will be small and very competitive.”

Oaklawn’s path to the Kentucky Derby begins on January 18th with the Smarty Jones Stakes, a race in which American Dubai, Black Ops, or both may run. But they aren’t the only runners that Keith has at Oaklawn this year: “We have another big horse, Saturday Shockwave, that I don’t think will handle the surface at Oaklawn well, but we just don’t know yet and we are waiting to see.”

Looking to the Future

Waiting is an inevitable part of every Kentucky Derby journey, but with two legitimate Derby contenders, Keith is happy to have his sights set on first Saturday in May. “I had several dreams when I started on this journey; one was to find and take a trainer that just needed the opportunity, the other was to take a rider that just needed the opportunity. The trainer I have found, but I have yet to find the rider. I will say that as an owner of just a few horses, it is such a great honor to have people like Calvin Borel offer to ride your horses. I will never forget watching him win the Kentucky Derby in 2009 on Mine That Bird and then again in 2010 on Super Saver.”

And no matter what happens in 2016—no matter if American Dubai or Black Ops win the Kentucky Derby, make it to the Derby, or fall short of the goal—Keith is just as excited about 2017.

“My criteria for my team was not to do it once, but to continue to be able to do it… So that being said, I had gotten so caught up in the yearling process [in 2015 that] I had almost written off 2016, because I think we have just as good [a group] of current two-year-olds now as we did [in 2015], if not better… my team thinks they can do better with them if they have them sooner, so we do, and we will see.”

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Follow J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman"):

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, blogger, videographer, and all-around horse racing enthusiast who was drawn to the sport by Curlin’s quest to become North America’s richest racehorse. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He lives in Wisconsin and also writes for the Bloodhorse.com blog Unlocking Winners.

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Eric Rickard
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I wish him well. We shall see how good they are in a week.

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