Before there was Ben's Cat, there was Eighttofasttocatch.
The hard-knocking gelding spent four years running at the stakes level, primarily at Laurel Park and Pimlico, becoming the first millionaire for trainer Tim Keefe. His name popped up again on the East Coast Thoroughbred radar last weekend when he competed in the Real Rider Cup, a jumper competition featuring prominent racing personalities facing off to raise money for Thoroughbred aftercare. Fans of the flashy chestnut may have wondered – what's he been doing all this time?
When it came time for Eighttofasttocatch to leave Keefe's barn, it turned out he didn't have far to go.
“He's a very special horse to Tim as far as his racing career,” said Rumsey Keefe, Tim's wife. “So he will be at the farm forever.”
In the four years since he left the track, “Catcher” has come to mean something very special to the rest of the Keefe family, too. Rumsey Keefe is a lifelong rider who grew up breaking and training horses for father Bill Gilbert, and learning about show horses through the local Pony Club, which her mother ran. As a young rider, Rumsey Keefe represented her region in team competition at the two-star level, picking up individual silver and team gold medals.
She has taken young prospects off the track and trained them into the middle levels of the sport, including several which have gone on to excel under professional Philip Dutton. Owner Arnold Heft had died by the time Catcher finished his career, but Rumsey said he was always clear about his wishes: that the Keefes should keep Catcher, or find him a secure home and second career. Rumsey decided to enter him in the inaugural Retired Racehorse Project as an eventer, where she learned he had athletic potential for the discipline, but needed some mental development.
“He was sort of an insecure horse,” she said. “He would do work but it took him a long while to be confident in himself that he could last 20 minutes and not go running back to the barn or checking in with his friends.
“Whenever he got nervous at the racetrack, he always had a goat that kept him happy, or someone coddle to him and met his needs when he got nervous. It just took a long time to get him to learn 'If you're going to have a hissy fit, I'm not going to coddle to you. It's time to grow up.' Then once he did that, he was actually quite good.”
Keefe has learned Catcher has a lot of opinions. He prefers to be outside at all times when at home on the Keefes' farm, no matter the weather, and has one corner of his paddock where he likes to eat. Catcher has partly overcome his separation anxiety, but Keefe has learned he must be the one to leave the field. If the mare he is turned out with (a retired lawn ornament) leaves him behind, his anxiety takes over.
Eventually, Keefe brought Catcher far enough along to turn him over to her daughter, Ryan, who ran the gelding through the training and preliminary levels. Catcher was a more challenging ride for Ryan than her previous mounts, and needed a little finesse. He's brave on the cross country course but his sneaky-long stride can make him a challenge in stadium, as his rider must finesse his way of going to set him up properly for each jump.
“She'd been on things that were a little 'been there, done that' so this was her first greener horse she brought along herself,” said Keefe.
After Ryan went to college, Catcher took a step back—he's capable of continuing to compete at the preliminary level or even a one-star, but Keefe has realized he's happier with smaller, simpler fences. Now, he has a new student – a much younger one. Keefe's 11-year-old daughter Carlin is ready to transition from pony to horse. Like so many clever horses, Catcher seems to recognize the precious nature of his cargo when Carlin is aboard and adopts a quiet, school-horse way of going.
“She's jumped him a couple times in the ring and really wants to take him x country. I'm kind of dragging my feet on that one,” Keefe chuckled. “He's actually quite obedient. He wants to do well.
“The other day she was riding him around and could barely get him to canter. She had to keep kicking to get him out of a trot. I was told her, 'Well I guess he's not ready for Maryland Million this year.'”
Follow Catcher's off-track journey at his Facebook page, which is maintained by Rumsey.
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