Are there any country music fans out there?
Truth be told, I can't say I'm the world's biggest, but I am a fan of high-profile people supporting the industry, and that is exactly what Toby Keith is doing for horse racing.
A multi-platinum recording artist and Billboard's Country Artist of the Decade, Keith is one of the biggest country music superstars around. He also happens to own a very fast 3-year-old named Sherriff Cogburn, who will make his graded stakes debut against Astrology in the $250,000 Iowa Derby (gr. III) on Saturday night at Prairie Meadows.
But if you are under the assumption that Keith is one of those celebrity owners who just likes throwing around his money in hopes of having his name associated with a high-profile horse, you couldn't be any more off base. Keith has been involved in horse racing for more than 14 years as an owner, breeder, buyer, and pinhooker, and is as passionate about pedigree as anyone you will ever run across.
Keith owns 330-acre Dream Walkin' Farms in Pauls Valley, Okla., where he breaks and trains his young horses and keeps a broodmare band of more than 110. At any given time Keith has between 100 and 200 horses in training, racing them across the Midwest at places like Prairie Meadows, Remington, Oaklawn, and Sunland Park. He uses several different trainers, including Don and Kelly Von Hemel, Jack Van Berg, Kenny Smith, Dale Romans, and Richard Mandella to name a few.
During his time in racing, Keith has owned eight stakes winners including Sherriff Cogburn, who scored the Prairie Meadows Juvenile Mile by 9 1/4 lengths last year. His best horse was homebred Cactus Ridge, a brilliantly fast 2-year-old in 2003 who was undefeated in four starts before being injured. Keith still owns stallion shares in Cactus Ridge, who stands at Vinery, breeds many of his mares to him, and follows all of his progeny. Keith talks about Cactus Ridge as a proud father would of his son and in fact, will talk pedigree with you all day long if he could.
"I knew early on that I could look at a gazillion horses and wouldn't have as good an eye as someone that did that their whole life," said Keith, who also owns and breeds Quarter Horses. "So I started diving into pedigree. I spent hundreds, thousands of hours reading about them; every book I could. If they gave it out, I could probably get my college degree in pedigree. I really enjoy it. It's a passion for me.
"I really got into the nicking thing, especially with TrueNicks, and I really believe in it. We live in the age of information and computers, so any edge I can get I try to take."
Keith said Sherriff Cogburn, who he picked out at the Keeneland September 2009 yearling sale for $50,000 with farm manager Lyndon Branch, is one of the fastest horses he's had since Cactus Ridge. By Vindication, Sherriff Cogburn broke his maiden by seven lengths last July at Arlington Park for Don Von Hemel and even before his Prairie Juvenile romp, Keith was offered big money for him. He was being pointed to the Arlington-Washington Futurity (gr. III) but unfortunately he injured his tendon after the Prairie Juvenile and was forced to sit out the rest of the year.
He has started twice this year, finishing second in the April 23 Golden Circle Stakes in his comeback and most recently, third in the June 4 Prairie Mile. In that last race, Sherriff Cogburn was impeded by a fallen horse in the stretch or might have done better. He is listed at 8-1 on the morning line in the Iowa Derby.
"I just don't know what I have with him right now," Keith said. "His second race back he had a terrible trip on the backside and then when he started digging in he got knocked in the shoulder. That race was such a wreck, I'm not sure what to think. He hasn't bounced back from his layoff like we thought, but he deserves to be in there. We'll see if he belongs."
Keith won't be at Prairie Meadows to watch Sherriff Cogburn, as he is in the middle of rehearsing for a six-month tour beginning on June 30 that will take him all over the country and to Europe. But he will certainly be watching on TV, as he does when most of his horses race.
"These are the kinds of races that get my juices flowing," said Keith. "I get a thrill every time one of them wins."
Keith's passion and committment to the sport makes it evident that he will be a fixture in horse racing for many years to come. He bought six yearlings in 2010 and is particularly high on a pair of the current 2-year-olds--Tough All Day, a $67,000 colt by Stormy Atlantic, and Wewoka Switch, a $190,000 colt by Harlan's Holiday. Here's hoping they turn out to be good ones, as does Sherriff Cogburn. Keith's success as an owner can only mean positive things for racing.