The Derby Journey, Part 6: A Second Chance for Black Ops

The Derby Journey, Part 6: A Second Chance for Black Ops

Welcome to the sixth 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!

With just over two months remaining until the Kentucky Derby, things are starting to heat up along the Derby trail. On March 19th, Oaklawn Park will play host to the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II), an 8.5-furlong race that has been won in recent years by champions American Pharoah, Will Take Charge, and Lookin at Lucky. For owner Richard Keith and his team, the Rebel Stakes will be a particularly important step on the road to the Derby, since the Rebel Stakes is a possible target for both of Keith’s Derby contenders.

First and foremost on the minds of handicappers is American Dubai, who finished a strong third after setting a fast pace in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn last month. According to Keith, American Dubai came out of the Southwest very well and is training strongly in advance of the Rebel Stakes.

“I think it was a great condition race for him.” said Keith. “We were pleased with his performance, not that everything went as originally planned, but the overall effect was great. The horse looks better than he has ever looked, [and] he continually improves, which is what we are aiming for with every outing.”

Keith also reiterated that winning prep races isn’t the goal for him and his team. “I know we probably approach the Derby trail a bit different than most, and our philosophy may prove to not be correct, but we believe in our approach and will continue to move along our course. I think I have stated previously that there is only one race I want this horse to win and that is the first Saturday in May. So every race between here and there is considered a prep race, and we treat each one as such, so winning is not a necessity, [we] just want to earn enough points to get in and then we will point for a win.”

The same belief applies to Keith’s second Derby contender, Black Ops, who will run in an allowance race at Oaklawn on March 4th. The colt broke his maiden impressively at Churchill Downs in November, then finished tenth as one of the favorites in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn, a race from which Black Ops emerged with a foot abscess. Since then, Black Ops has recovered and posted two recent workouts at Oaklawn, including six furlongs in 1:17.20 on February 26th. The field for Friday’s allowance race is a good one—Black Ops will be facing a group of talented older horses, including the stakes-winning Wolf Man Rocket—but Richard Keith is hopeful that Black Ops will give a good account of himself.

“We did not know what kind of company he would draw in this race, but I think I have stated before [that] I think when we run our horses just a little—or in this case a lot—over their heads, they end up being much better against horses of their own age or class. He is definitely back to the old Black Ops and training great.”

But if Black Ops runs well in the allowance race, will he run back in the Rebel Stakes just fifteen days later? “I think it will depend on how he comes out of this race.” said Keith. “We have several options picked for him and have not set anything in stone for him just yet. I think the class in this race is absolutely fabulous, it is a great card for the racing fans, and [Oaklawn Park is] a great place to show case some of the greatest three-year-old talent in the world.

“The job that the staff does putting on great races is just amazing.” added Keith. “We have some of the most talented riders, trainers, and horses in the world right here in Oaklawn Park, in the little town of Hot Springs Arkansas… The job that [racing secretary] Pat Pope and his staff does is phenomenal, and now they have found an announcer to fill the big shoes of the famous Frank Mirahmadi in Pete Aiello. I believe if racing fans have not been here, it should be moved to the top of their bucket list as the number one place to go for world class racing.”

But no matter what happens with American Dubai and Black Ops, Richard Keith is planning to enjoy the ride. “As you can tell, we are working hard and are very excited. I have relocated to Hot Springs for the rest of the meet and have been spending seven days a week at the track and the barn. Our barn just keeps getting better, and the encouragement we get everyday makes all the work feel a little like play.”

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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