Breeders’ Cup Presents Connections: ‘You Can’t Judge A Horse By His Cover’

by | 06.14.2018 | 12:35pm
Still Having Fun and Joel Rosario greet Tim Keefe after the Woody Stephens

Dismissed at 13-1 on the tote board, the little brown colt barely drew an eye in the paddock on the Belmont Stakes undercard. As the field for the Grade 2 Woody Stephens left the starting gate, he was even less prominent, traipsing along at the back of the field, nearly 12 lengths behind the leader.

It wasn't until the stretch run that Still Having Fun earned anyone's attention. Flying down the center of the track under Joel Rosario, the little brown colt made the front in the final 70 yards of the seven-furlong contest to cross the wire a 1 ¼-length winner.

The win gave Maryland-based trainer Tim Keefe his first in a graded stakes race and 499th training win overall, an enormous personal accomplishment for the jack-of-all-trades horseman.

“It was just unbelievable, to do it on Belmont Stakes day,” said Keefe. “I wasn't real thrilled out of the gate because he was so far back, but Gary (Barber, co-owner) was yelling and saying 'that's a perfect spot!' I didn't get really excited until the last eighth of a mile, and everything seemed to go in slow motion from there. One of the most special things was all the congratulations after the race… I must have had 135 unanswered text messages when I got home!”

Still Having Fun's Woody Stephens win was also a first for co-owner Jim Scott's Terp Racing partnership, the group which sent Keefe to the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Fall yearling sale in 2016.

A “Maryland-bred” himself, Keefe is a fervent supporter of the Maryland breeding industry and is always on the lookout for locally bred horses at the sales. He is particularly familiar with the way Charles and Cynthia McGinnes raise their young horses out in a field, the way “a horse should be raised,” so the Thornmar consignment is one of his regular stops at Fasig-Tipton.

By Old Fashioned (Unbridled's Song), their little brown colt consigned as Hip 260 was the second foal out of Casual Kiss (Dehere), a mare Keefe had tried to get to the races himself.

“The pedigree didn't really do a lot for me,” Keefe remembered. “I knew the mare. I knew the mare was talented because I trained the mare, but she was just unsound… She did something to herself behind early, and despite all the time we gave her she just never made it to a race.”

In fact, Still Having Fun's first two generations were both unraced Maryland-breds. His third dam, Foolish Kisses, had managed a stakes victory and was a producer of 10 winning foals, four of which earned black type.

That said, the little brown colt had some issues of his own. He wasn't perfectly straight in front, toeing out a little bit and one of his front feet was smaller than the other. Luckily, Keefe had already learned his lesson about “perfectly-built racehorses.”

A new owner had brought an unraced 2-year-old to Keefe's barn in 2004, and the trainer distinctly remembered the first time he put eyes on the horse.

“He was this big gawky-looking bay gelding,” said Keefe. “When you looked at him straight on, he looked like Fred Sanford – he toed out with both front feet. He was by Yara Brae, and I just kind of rolled my eyes and thought, 'I'll never get anywhere with a horse like this.' Lo and behold, he was one of the best horses I ever had.”

That gawky gelding was Celtic Innis, a five-time stakes winner who earned $648,638.

“It was from there that I learned that you can't judge a horse by his pedigree,” Keefe continued. “You're also not going to go to the sale and find a perfect horse… First of all, I'm not going to be able to afford that horse, and second, a perfectly-conformed horse doesn't always make a good racehorse. That kind of changed me and how I look at a horse.”

Keefe decided he liked the yearling Still Having Fun, especially the way the colt handled himself with such quiet confidence at the sale, and bid on him in the ring. The hammer fell at $12,000, with Keefe on top.

As the colt began training, Keefe never heard anything negative. In fact, he rarely heard anything about Still Having Fun.

“He was just a plain little brown horse,” Keefe said. “He never put a foot wrong, and none of the vets or anyone knew who he was because there was never anything wrong with him. He just didn't show up as anything special until we started breezing him… From there, the more I did with him, the more surprised I was. I'd look at my watch after he worked and think, 'That was Still Having Fun? Wow!'”

On debut, Still Having Fun was an impressive enough winner that high-profile owners Gary Barber and Adam Wachtel contacted Jim Scott about buying the colt. Scott didn't want to sell, Keefe recalled, because he would just be sending Keefe back to the Midlantic sale trying to buy the same kind of horse. Eventually, a deal was worked out to share ownership of Still Having Fun, contingent on the horse staying in Keefe's barn.

The colt won a pair of stakes races at Laurel in January and February, but he did not fire in a couple of two-turn stakes in his next two starts. Cut back to sprinting, Still Having Fun ran a big second on the Preakness Stakes undercard in the Chick Lang Stakes to the high-profile Mitole. Including the Woody Stephens, Still Having Fun has won four of his eight starts for earnings of $431,703.

“I'm just thankful to Gary and Adam for buying into this horse and having the faith to keep him with me,” Keefe said, “and tI'm thankful to Jim Scott and Terp Racing for over the years supporting me with a lot of horses.”

Keefe hasn't finalized plans for the colt's next start, explaining that he'll wait until Still Having Fun tells him he's ready for another race. Possible options include the July 7 Dwyer Stakes, and from there, the H. Allen Jerkens (formerly King's Bishop) at Saratoga could be on the radar.

A Pony Clubber, exercise rider, colt starter, steeplechase jockey, and college graduate, Keefe had a lot of experience listening to the needs of his horses. His wife, Rumsey, is an accomplished three-day event rider, as are several of the couple's four children, and together they help to find homes for those Thoroughbreds no longer interested in the racing game.

“There is a place and a home for every one of them if you try hard enough to find it,” said Keefe.

Just one of the Keefes' second career success stories is a horse named Horton Who, a one-time winner from seven starts. He went on to a very successful eventing career, first with Rumsey and then with Olympian Phillip Dutton. Horton Who won a two-star level competition in 2001, and even completed the four-star Kentucky Three-Day event at the Kentucky Horse Park.

“It just goes to show you that you can't judge a horse by his cover,” Keefe said. “You never know where a good horse will come from.”

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