The Derby Journey, Part 4: Unforeseen Developments

The Derby Journey, Part 4: Unforeseen Developments

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Welcome to the fourth 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, Part 2 may be read here, and Part 3 may be read here. Enjoy!

Along the road to the Kentucky Derby, not everything that transpires is exactly what it appears to be at first glance. In other words, the performance of a given horse—whether good or bad—can be influenced by a variety of factors, some of which aren’t obvious just from watching a replay or reading a result chart.

At the beginning of 2016, a colt named Black Ops was looking like a major Kentucky Derby contender. In November at Churchill Downs, he had won an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight in dominating fashion, recording a final time that was nearly as fast as Airoforce ran while winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) later in the day. As a result, Black Ops was among the favorites in the January 18th Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn Park, a race in which he finished a surprising tenth.

In the immediate aftermath of the race, no obvious reasons arose to explain Black Ops’ performance. Jockey Calvin Borel said that Black Ops didn’t seem to be handling the track; owner Richard Keith noted that Black Ops came out of the race “very stiff and sore.”

But about a week after the race, the real reason was discovered: “Black Ops is recovering from a [foot] abscess,” explained Richard Keith on February 4th, “…we are about 90% sure that is what was causing him to be so off in the Smarty Jones. It finally showed up a maybe 7-10 days ago, and he seems to be recovering okay.” On February 7th, Keith added that “Black Ops is scheduled for shoes this morning and we think he will get back on track very soon.”

As a result of the abscess, Black Ops will miss the February 15th Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn, but it’s not out of the question that he could run in the February 20th Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds. “[We] don’t know if he will be ready for the Risen Star or not, but [we’re] not ruling it out just yet either.” said Keith.

Despite Black Ops’ setback, Keith and his team will still be represented in the Southwest Stakes by American Dubai. Like Black Ops, American Dubai broke his maiden in impressive fashion at Churchill Downs last November, then returned to action in an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Oaklawn on January 21st. In that race, American Dubai set the pace and opened up a 3 ½-length lead in the homestretch before tiring to finish second, beaten a half-length; however he was disqualified and placed third for drifting in and blocking another runner in the closing stages of the race.

For his first race since November, and his first race around two turns, American Dubai’s performance was excellent—but was it even better than it appeared to be at first glance?

“I think he ran a good race,” said Keith a few days after the race, “I think the stewards did the right thing taking us down. [Trainer] Rodney [Richards] got with them and went over the footage, and they were right in doing what they did.”

But Keith also mentioned that American Dubai suffered an eye injury during the race. “We feel confident that he will recover fine; it’s still cloudy but getting better every day. He can see out of it but we are not taking him out in the sunlight yet. “

Fortunately, the setback was minor. “[American Dubai] has recovered well, and no, he did not miss much training, we couldn’t [let him miss much], he was tearing the barn down.” said Keith. “He’s still going strong so far and looking good.”

On February 3rd, American Dubai worked a mile in the excellent time of 1:41.60 at Oaklawn, and while workouts of that length are not very common for Kentucky Derby contenders, Keith explained that American Dubai loves to train and needs a lot of exercise. “He has always been quite a handful, but after the [allowance] race, he seemed to get turned up another notch. Only Rodney and Zack (runs the shed row) can walk him. He’s too much for the hot walker to handle. I think that he is going to be a candidate to go out [and exercise on] the day of the race, as well as work more often. He just can’t seem to get enough.”

In the meantime, Keith and his team got to see another of their promising colts make his Oaklawn debut. On February 6th, Saturday Shockwave—making his first start since a fifth-place finish at Churchill last November—returned to action in an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight. With jockey Carlos Marquez Jr. in the saddle, Saturday Shockwave got off to a slow start and was in last place early on, but unleashed a strong rally in the homestretch to finish third, beaten two necks for victory.

“We originally thought he might be one of the best Derby prospects in the barn,” said Keith, “but [we] just keep having little setbacks with him, and like I said before, [I] was not sure just how well he would carry himself over the dirt, much less the dirt at Oaklawn. But after watching him go last month, I knew he was going really well over that track. He ran a really good race yesterday, and gave us just a glimpse of what he might be capable of doing in the future.”

Despite the setbacks, the future looks bright for Richard Keith’s Derby contenders. The Turf Board wishes them the best of luck as the road to the Kentucky Derby continues!

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to sign up for email newsletters and special offers from The Turf Board! Also, if you’re a fan of horse racing history, please check out my upcoming book Lost to the Ages: 10 Forgotten Champions of U.S. Horse Racingscheduled for release later this year!

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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