Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Welcome to the third part 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. Part 1 may be read here, while Part 2 may be read here. Enjoy!
No one who has traveled the road to the Kentucky Derby has ever compared it to a paved highway. The road to the Derby is filled with bumps, potholes, sharp turns, and detours, but while the road is challenging, it can also bring unexpected surprises of the pleasant kind.
In some respects, the January 18th Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park didn’t go as hoped for Richard Keith and his team. Their promising colt Black Ops, who had broken his maiden in impressive fashion at Churchill Downs last November, was the fourth choice among the eleven horses in the race and was considered to have a good chance at winning. But after settling near the rear of the field early on, Black Ops failed to rally when the real running began and was eased by jockey Calvin Borel to finish tenth.
“As you could tell, he did not run at all, and that was concerning to us as we watched the race unfold.” says Keith. “[I] did not talk too much to Calvin after the race, as there was not much time to really cover anything in-depth, [but trainer] Rodney [Richards] did spend some time talking to him this morning and got a bit more insight into the conditions.”
According to Borel, Black Ops was having trouble handling the track. “[Borel] said there was just a little bumping at the gate, but he did not think it to be all that much of an issue, but as he went around he could tell that Black Ops was struggling just a bit, and around the half-mile pole, he could tell that he was not going to ask him for more as it was.”
“We had the vet on him right after the race and there was nothing showing, and he did go back and eat that evening, so we just left him to be quite for a while… the morning after Black was very stiff and sore and just not carrying himself well. He was much better this morning, and after talking to Calvin, [we’re] still not exactly sure what the whole issue was, but Calvin said that he was having trouble getting a hold of the track, and he even mentioned that Toews On Ice [the race favorite who finished sixth] appeared to be having the same problem… But all that being said, [Black Ops] will be back soon I am sure, and even better than before, and we look forward to seeing him run like we know he can.”
But although the race itself didn’t go as hoped, it nevertheless helped Keith and his team introduce some new fans to the sport of horse racing. “It was a great experience, [and] one of the things that made it so good was introducing some new people to the horse racing excitement. Rodney is a great horseman; he’s great with people and even better with kids. He studied to be a coach in college, so he has always had a great excitement for kids and teaching.”
“So it was Saturday evening [on January 9th], and we had finished at the track and headed over to Rocky’s Corner, just across from Oaklawn, to watch California Chrome run in the San Pasqual. While we were there, a small family came in and sat next to us—it was a mother and father and two kids and one friend of the kids. The boys were about 10-14, and as usual, Rodney struck up a conversation with the kids; you know, sports, fishing, school, and just whatever they wanted to talk about. He asked them if they ever went to the races, and of course they said that they had never been. So he proceeded to invite them to the races, explaining that we should have one running next Saturday and one [Black Ops] running next Monday. He told them the names of the horses and to keep an eye out in case one of them won, to be sure and come down and get in the win picture with us.”
The horse that Keith and his team had planned to enter for Saturday, a filly named Superduperjustice, ended up being entered for Monday instead, “so I figured they would show up just because it was Saturday,” says Keith, “and we would not be there, and they would just be disappointed… Monday came, and we went to the paddock to saddle Superduperjustice, and when we finished and the horses left the paddock, I heard someone call out ‘Rodney.’ We turned around, and at the rail there were the kids.”
“So Rodney met them outside and we watched the race, and of course, she did not win, but I was shocked that they actually showed up at all and much less they figured out Monday instead of Saturday. When we went to saddle Black Ops, there were people 10-15 deep around the rail, and I saw Rodney looking around, and then we saw the kids and their parents standing kind of back off the rail. Rodney stopped what he was doing and walked over to the rail and called them over and got them close to the rail. I don’t know what he said to them, but I do know he got them a better vantage point.”
“One of the kids asked me at Rocky’s, ‘what’s the chances of winning,’” says Keith, “and I told him it takes nine losers to make one good race, so our chances are never good to win one, every single thing has to go just right, and then you need a lot of luck. They said ‘why do you even try,’ I said ‘you go fishing don’t you?’ They said ‘yes,’ I said ‘do you always catch fish,’ they said ‘no,’ I said ‘but you go anyway don’t you,’ they said ‘yes,’ I asked ‘why do you keep going,’ they said ‘because we might catch some, or even a really big one.’”
“I said that’s why we do it, because we might win one, and someday, maybe a big one. So I thought that if nothing, else Black Ops introduced one new family to the sport of horse racing, and that is what I strive to do…. be a good ambassador for the sport.”
For Keith and his team, their Kentucky Derby journey will continue on January 21 st when their other Derby contender—American Dubai—makes his 2016 debut in an allowance race at Oaklawn Park. American Dubai will be facing a tough field that includes Unexplained, runner-up to the talented Conquest Big E in an allowance race at Churchill, and this race will mark American Dubai’s first run in a two-turn race. But although American Dubai has questions to answer, Keith is hopeful that the colt won’t have any trouble with Oaklawn’s racing surface.
“He is training great,” says Keith, “[and while] we have been trying to get Black Ops to be more consistent on this surface, American Dubai does not seem to care what condition the track is in, he just adapts and goes right over it.” Keith also mentioned that in a recent gallop at Oaklawn, American Dubai was supposed to go a mile in two minutes, “but he moves so well that he did it in 1:47 and did it on his own.”
And so the road to the Kentucky Derby takes another turn.
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