The Derby Journey, Part 5: Complicated Decisions

The Derby Journey, Part 5: Complicated Decisions

Welcome to the fifth 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. The previous parts may be read here. Enjoy!

Watching the Kentucky Derby trail unfold from afar, it can be easy to assume that it’s a simple process to choose where a promising Derby contender should run. On many occasions, the race schedules for talented three-year-olds are announced well in advance of their races, which can give the impression that prepping a horse for the Kentucky Derby is as simple as choosing a series of races and hoping for the best.

However, on many occasions, the decision is more complicated. The prospects of large fields and bad post position draws can make some Derby prep races less appealing than others; in addition, when there are multiple Derby preps in the same region scheduled less than a week apart, it can make the task of choosing the best prep race even trickier. Throw in the different surfaces and race configurations found at various tracks—which can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on the individual horse—and you can start to see some of the elements that make it difficult to choose a prep race.

For Richard Keith and his team, choosing a race for their talented three-year-old American Dubai was especially tricky because they had not two, but three races in mind.

Their original plans called for American Dubai to run in the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (gr. III) on February 15th at Oaklawn Park, but when it became clear that a large number of horses would be entered—it eventually drew a full field of fourteen—they chose to cross-enter American Dubai in an Oaklawn allowance race on February 13th while also considering a run in the February 20th Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds.

“We were concerned about our post position in the Southwest and wanted to make sure we had a good ‘what if’ plan [in case American Dubai drew a poor post position].” explained Keith after the races were drawn. “But he was also nominated for the Veterans Ford Risen Star at Fair Grounds, and they drew the same day [as the Southwest], just a little later in the day, so we were on the phone with Fair Grounds as well, keeping them apprised of what our intentions were, and I must say they were a very welcoming and accommodating.”

In the end, American Dubai drew post position three in the Southwest Stakes, an excellent post position that made his team’s decision much simpler: American Dubai would run in the Southwest, would not be entered in the Risen Star, and would scratch from the Oaklawn allowance race.

“I think it worked out like it was supposed to, and we are happy with the outcome of all the work and efforts on everyone’s part.” said Keith. “He has been training very well and has a great look in his eyes. Full of life and excitement on his part and just keeps getting stronger.”

Coming off of a strong third-place finish in a January 21st allowance race at Oaklawn—in which he crossed the wire second before being disqualified to third for interference—American Dubai won’t be favored to win in the Southwest Stakes, but a victory would not be a surprise. He should benefit from having a prep race under his belt, and could improve while making his second start in a two-turn race.

Now, Richard Keith just hopes for rain.

“Our other concern has been weather. This track is designed to handle a lot of water, and we have not been getting any here at all,” said Keith, “and at this point, we really need some, and according to the forecast, it should begin raining sometime today and continue through part of tomorrow, which will really improve the surface for the whole field.”

“I think what we have been seeing is the lighter horses are having problems getting a hold of the track, and the heavier horses are doing much better getting a good grip on the track.” Keith added. “When we stood in the paddock for the Smarty Jones with Black Ops, I looked around at the horses as they circled the paddock, and one thing came to mind: that there were a couple really big and heavy horses in the race. For instance, the one that really jumped out at me was Discreetness [who won the race].”

“Then, we were standing on the apron watching the race, and the owners and other connections of Discreetness were also standing there, and as they cheered him on as he made his move, you could tell his barn name was Big Boy, as they were cheering for Big Boy. And they are right in the fact he is a big boy.”

“As I reflected back and have watched other races… I think if this surface is a little dry, the smaller or lighter horses are at a little bit of a disadvantage because traction for them comes at a premium and takes a little extra effort. So all this I guess is just to explain our watch of the weather and conditions, as this is a great surface here at Oaklawn, but it is designed around their normal conditions, which is a lot of water, and without it it’s kind of like running on the beach. American Dubai is a big horse, but not an extremely heavy horse, and he has done really well on wet or sloppy surfaces. And we think this track in the normal conditions will fit him really well,” said Keith.

The Southwest Stakes is the ninth race on Oaklawn’s Monday race card and is scheduled to be run at 6:09 pm EST. Be sure to tune in and watch as American Dubai takes his next step on the road to the Kentucky Derby!

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 blog Unlocking Winners.

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