09/18/2017 5:57PM

Country music star Toby Keith keeps racing in family

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When country music superstar Toby Keith goes to the Keeneland September yearling sale, a crowd usually follows. As the middle market of Book 4 settles in, a celebrity in the pavilion tends to stand out.

Keith stood alone, leaning on the frame of a doorway in the Keeneland sales pavilion and watching a Bernardini colt hammer for $255,000.

As the colt left the ring, he pumped his fist toward the middle row of seats where his daughter Krystal sat. She was the colt’s seller, and had just hit nicely with her first auction experience.

“There might have been tears,” Krystal said afterward. “It was my first one, so I didn’t know what to expect. You buy into him, and for us, it was three years of waiting on this one horse. The fact that he did really well, we were overjoyed with it.”

The Thoroughbred industry is one of many interests shared by Toby Keith, 56, and his daughter, 31, who is also a country singer and songwriter.

Based in Pauls Valley, Okla., Toby Keith has built a diverse Thoroughbred portfolio since entering the business in the early 1990s. His Dream Walkin’ Farms is perennially among the leading owners at Oaklawn Park and his hometown Remington Park, where the family keeps a finish-line suite.

He also keeps a roughly 40-member broodmare band and holds interests in Kentucky stallion Ice Box, Rattlesnake Bridge in Florida, and Oklahoma residents Doctor Chit and Sebastian County. The latter is a Grade 3-placed homebred full brother to Cactus Ridge, Keith’s first graded stakes winner and a productive stallion until his career was stunted by fertility issues.

When Krystal expressed interest in the Thoroughbred industry, Toby essentially leased her Miss Dixie Cup, an unplaced Giant’s Causeway mare who is a half-sister to Cactus Ridge. With the help of the family’s bloodstock advisers, Krystal and husband Andrew Sandubrae chose Darley resident Bernardini for the mating and paid the stud fee.

Baccari Bloodstock consigned the colt at the Keeneland sale, and he was purchased on Monday by West Coast-based Al and Sandee Kirkwood. After the sale, Krystal said the rush of the auction ring could get addictive, but she wasn’t sure if her nerves could take the build-up again.

“My dad said, ‘I’ve got you hooked now,’ ” she said after the transaction. “I said, ‘I don’t know if I can wait three years on another one. I don’t know if I have it in me.’ ”

While Toby was at Keeneland to support his daughter, he was also there to add to his racing stable.

A buyer of his status could certainly play in the lofty air of Book 1, but Keith has traditionally bought in the September sale’s middle books. His reasons for buying where he does in the catalog are both economic and practical.

“I don’t want to buy a million-dollar horse and take him to the racetrack,” he said. “I try to buy nice athletes, take them back, try to take good care of them, run them and try to make everybody happy.”

Keith is in the process of re-focusing the mission of Dream Walkin’ Farms, with more attention given to the racing side. He has already cut his broodmare band down significantly from a high point of about 130 head, but he would like to further cull to focus on supporting his stallions and the on-track operation.

“For all the stallions I have, I still keep four or five mares going to them,” he said, “I’m not just wide-open anymore. I just started concentrating on buying athletes. I get a bigger kick out of racing than I do selling.”

Through Monday, Dream Walkin’ Farms had won 44 of 424 starts in 2017, with earnings of $897,338. Keith finished tied for third in the owner standings by wins during the most recent Oaklawn Park meet with nine.

With the Remington Park meet still in its opening weeks, Keith said many of his 2-year-olds are still waiting to emerge from the group as future standouts.

In the meantime, the current star of his stable is homebred Smack Smack, the winner of last year’s Grade 3 Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap. The 6-year-old Closing Argument gelding has been a steady campaigner in the Great Plains and Southwest, but he is winless on the year, putting him just short of a milestone.

“Smack Smack is about $20,000 short of a million and I’m having hell getting him there,” he said. “He kind of quit on me, so we’re going to give him a little time off and see if he can come back.

“It’s hard to get to a million dollars on the racetrack,” Keith continued. “He’s done well. He’s a two-time horse of the year at Prairie Meadows. He’s really worked hard and campaigned, so I really want to get him to be a millionaire, but it’s slow going with him right now. We’ll get him there.”