When Still Having Fun rattled off wins in a pair of 3-year-old stakes at Laurel Park over the winter, his connections began to dream big and wonder how far the bargain $12,000 yearling would be able to stretch his talent.
Considering a race such as the Preakness Stakes (G1) was nothing out of the ordinary for higher profile owners such as Gary Barber and Adam Wachtel, who bought into Still Having Fun following his debut victory in a maiden claiming event last fall at Laurel.
But, it was new territory for Jim Scott and his Terp Racing partners, the group that gave Laurel-based trainer Tim Keefe the money to purchase a bay son of Old Fashioned out of the Dehere mare Casual Kiss during Fasig-Tipton's Midlantic fall auction at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium last October.
“When he looked like he was going to be a good horse, yeah, we wanted to take a shot and see if we could stretch him out to run him in maybe the Preakness … slowly stretch him out, and it's not what he wanted to do,” Keefe said. “I trained his mother and I trained his half-sister and she didn't have much ability, but she tried. They were both stone-cold sprinters. We kind of had that in the back of our minds, but we had to try.”
Failed attempts at two turns in the Private Terms and 1 1/8-mile Federico Tesio, Maryland's traditional Preakness prep, led the connections to return Still Having Fun to sprinting. Still at home but racing for the first time away from Laurel, he closed to be second behind standout Mitole in the six-furlong Chick Lang Stakes on the Preakness undercard.
After careful consideration, Keefe and his owners felt the time was right to take their act on the road and step up to a graded-stakes. Despite the three-week turnaround, they pointed to the seven-furlong Woody Stephens (G2) on the Belmont Stakes (G1) undercard June 10 at Belmont Park, and were handsomely rewarded with a come-from-behind 1 ¼-length victory at odds of 13-1.
“I love Maryland. I'm a Maryland guy. I've been there my whole life. I was born there, I raised my family and my kids there, my wife and I live there, we have a farm. Maryland is everything to me,” Keefe said. “A lot of times people discount horses if they're Maryland-breds, and he's not a fancy bred horse. He's out of a mare that this was her first foal. I liked him and he's a great racehorse. He's a very sound horse. He's got a great mind and he can adjust to different things.
“We were easy on him early and we just tried to develop him and take our time with him. We kept him at home. We ventured out to the Chick Lang at Pimlico last time and he handled that very well,” he added. “He ran behind a great horse of Steve Asmussen's, just a lights-out horse. I felt like a winner running second in that race, so that kind of bought us a ticket to run in [the Woody Stephens]. Talking to Gary and Adam, they're both numbers guys. They said his numbers fit, so let's take a shot. So that's what we did.”
Ridden for the first time by Joel Rosario, Still Having Fun ran next-to-last in the 11-horse field through a half-mile before launching his bid on the far outside and coming with a steady run through the stretch to catch Fountain of Youth (G2) winner Promises Fulfilled in the final 70 yards and edge clear. It was the 499th career win for Keefe and the first in a graded-stakes for both he and Terp Racing, a collection of horse lovers with ties to the University of Maryland.
“It's probably sunk in with Adam and Gary because they're used to this … but it certainly has more than it has for Jim Scott and his Terp Racing guys and myself. It was my first graded-stakes win. I'd won a couple stakes at Aqueduct, some overnight stakes, but they were smaller races, obviously,” Keefe said. “Nothing compared to [Saturday]. That was obviously pretty cool for me – just having this horse being a Maryland-bred and not having paid a lot for him.
“It's huge. I remember winning the first stake with this horse and it was Terp Racing's first stake [win]. Jimmy's question was 'We only got one owners' trophy. Do you think Gary and Adam are going to want it?'” he added. “I asked him and Adam said, 'You can keep it. I'll wait for the graded-stakes trophy.'”
Still Having Fun earned $220,000 for the Woody Stephens, more than doubling his bankroll to $431,703 with his fourth victory from eight career starts. His other stakes wins came in the seven-furlong Frank Whiteley Jr. and one-mile Miracle Wood to open his 3-year-old season.
“I said all along after he won his first couple of stakes that he's the kind of horse that nobody pays attention to. The vets don't know him because there's never anything wrong with him. Everybody in the barn knows he's easy to handle, he's easy to ride, everybody likes him,” Keefe said. “He's just one of those horses that you don't pay attention to because there's no reason to, until it's work day. Then when you work the horse you're like, 'Wow' when you look at your watch.
“That's how it went with this horse early on before he ran and showed us what he was,” he added. “He's out of a mare that hasn't really thrown much of anything and by a stallion I think everybody gave up on. We didn't know what to expect out of him, but he's certainly turned out to be a super nice horse for us.”
Keefe and Still Having Fun returned to Laurel Saturday night following the race – “it was the easiest trip I ever had,” he said – and the trainer said his stable star emerged from the effort in good shape. He said he will talk with the partners this week about what might be next.
“As I've told Adam, I'm never 100 percent comfortable [saying] the horse is perfect until after he's gone back to the track and my rider gives me the thumbs up and tells me everything feels great,” Keefe said. “A horse might look great in the barn and be eating good but until you get back on the track you don't know for sure. But he seems great and I'm really happy with everything else.
“Certainly Saratoga might be something that we'd consider. I'm sure there will be opportunities for him up there this summer,” he added. “He's run pretty hard consistently since January. He hasn't missed a beat. I'll see what Adam has in mind. He's been great. He's a real numbers guy and he'll help determine what a good next spot will be.”
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