10/04/2017 12:56PM

Breeders' Cup Classic: Keen Ice keeps dancing every dance

Barbara D. Livingston
Keen Ice wins the Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont Park in July.

For more than three years now, Keen Ice has plied his trade across the country and in Dubai, his 23 starts taking place at 11 different tracks. And while he’s only won three of those starts, there are only a few from his crop still racing at the highest level in the sport.

As his racing career heads into deep stretch, with starts Saturday in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and then, assuming he runs well, the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Del Mar, an appreciation can be gained for his accomplishments, most notably beating American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers when trained by Dale Romans, and for remaining among the best of his division for his entire career.

Keen Ice was good enough to finish third in the Remsen at age 2; at age 3 was third in the Belmont and second in the Haskell before winning the Travers; finished third last year at age 4 in the BC Classic at Santa Anita; and this year, at age 5, owns a victory in the Suburban and a second-place finish in the Whitney. A start in the Classic this year would be his third straight appearance in that race. He was fourth at Keeneland in 2015, then third last year.

No other prospect for this year’s Classic has run in the previous two. And of the 17 other 3-year-olds who were in the 2015 Kentucky Derby – in which Keen Ice finished seventh after a troubled trip – most have long left the scene, with only Mubtaahij and War Story still potential participants in this year’s Breeders’ Cup races.

“He’s consistently performed well,” said Todd Pletcher, who has trained Keen Ice for his past seven starts after he was transferred from Romans midway through 2016. “I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. He beat American Pharoah fair and square in the Travers, the way I saw it. He’s always impressed us in his training, and he’s run some top-quality races. He’s probably a little underappreciated, but hopefully his next couple of starts will make him more appreciated.”

For sure, those closest to him appreciate him. Keen Ice was originally owned wholly by Donegal Racing. Calumet Farm, which is where Keen Ice will go to stud, bought into him at the beginning of this year. Keen Ice has earned more than $3.25 million.

Last year’s Classic was only the second start for Keen Ice after he joined Pletcher’s barn. Keen Ice had gone to Kentucky for a freshening after that year’s Dubai World Cup, “and by the time he got to us, we were playing catch-up,” Pletcher said. “He just had one prep, at a mile.”

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After this year’s World Cup, Pletcher and the ownership group “wanted to target the Suburban, then map out a way to go to the Jockey Club Gold Cup and then the Breeders’ Cup,” Pletcher said. The Whitney was the intermediate stop.

“He’s a big, strong, hardy horse who takes his races really well,” Pletcher said.

And Keen Ice is a tough customer around the barn.

“He requires an experienced groom and handler,” Pletcher said. “He’s not a house pet, for sure. But he’s a willing participant. He’s a good doer, always has a good, shiny hair coat. He’s a good-feeling horse.”

The Jockey Club Gold Cup – which also drew Classic aspirants such as Destin, Good Samaritan, Pavel, and Rally Cry – is a Win and You’re In qualifier for the Classic. It is run at 1 1/4 miles, the same distance as the Classic and a trip over which Keen Ice has done some of his best work, which stands to reason since he is by a Classic winner (Curlin) and out of a dam by a Classic winner (Awesome Again). The Travers is at 1 1/4 miles. So is the Suburban, which, like the Jockey Club Gold Cup, is run at Belmont Park.

“I think he’s best at a mile and a quarter, but despite that, he ran well in the Whitney,” Pletcher said of Keen Ice’s most recent start, when he was beaten 5 1/4 lengths by Gun Runner going 1 1/8 miles. “He stumbled at the start and lost position. Gun Runner was best on the day, and I’m not saying he’d have beaten Gun Runner, but he was better than the margin indicates.”

If all goes well Saturday, he’ll get a chance for a rematch with Gun Runner, next time on neutral ground – neither has run at Del Mar – and at Keen Ice’s favorite distance.

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