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Q&A: Toby Keith
Multi-platinum-selling country music singer-songwriter who has extensive Thoroughbred holdings.
Birthdate: July 8, 1961, in Clinton, Okla.
Residence: Norman, Okla.
Family: Married with three children
Growing up in Oklahoma and Arkansas, did you ever have anything to do with horse racing, or, if not horse racing, then horses in general? "My grandmother in Arkansas loved to go to Oaklawn. My dad took us to Remington Park in Oklahoma. I worked for a rodeo stock company in high school, and my dad's childhood friends were all owners of racehorses."
Do you bet? Do you handicap? "I always bet 'em."
Was going racing something you enjoyed, or were you more into the idea of owning horses? "I always enjoyed going to the races, but I wanted to own as soon as I could. It was 1997 that I bought in. My first purchase was half of a family friend's homebred named Jack Branch. He broke his maiden first time out at Remington Park, and I was hooked."
How many horses do you own? "Sixty mares, and 150 weanlings, yearlings, and horses of racing age. One stallion, Cactus Ridge, who stands at the Vinery. Twenty-five Quarter Horses. We had two Quarter Horse stallions, Latest Version and The Down Side [winner of the Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos], but we lost The Down Side in a tragic fire. That was the fire where 10-12 stallions, including Favorite Trick, were lost."
Do you have about the same investment in the sport as the last several years? Are you getting smaller or larger? "Larger every day. Make it stop!"
Who is the best horse that you have owned? "Cactus Ridge."
Who's the best horse you've ever seen? "Hollywood Hit is the fastest sprinter I've seen since I've been in this, but he is a son of Cactus Ridge, so I'm a little bit of a homer on him. Of all horses in my time, I thought Point Given was a beast. But it's like comparing Babe Ruth to Barry Bonds: Unless they race each other on the same track at the same time, I think it's hard to say. But in all-time horses, I'm a Secretariat groupie. He's the big dog daddy."
Are you a hands-on kind of owner? Do you get involved in decision making about breeding or racing? Do you go to sales? Or do you leave all that stuff to your people? "I attend a lot of sales and have lots of different people to assist in my broodmare and yearling purchases. I've probably studied as hard as anyone on pedigrees, almost to an addictive state. I have probably driven Arthur Hancock [owner of Stone Farm] and Dr. Bill Lockridge [breeder, bloodstock adviser, former veterinarian] nuts over the last 13 years asking questions about families and pedigrees, but they've never been too busy to entertain me, and I appreciate them for that. We have always done really well pinhooking yearlings and buying good mares. My farm manager, Lynden Branch, has a great eye. Conformation is his trade."
When someone first gets into the game, it seems like sometimes the sharks suddenly appear in the water, smelling fresh blood. Did you feel there were people trying to prey upon you as a new owner with cash? "My good friend, coach Barry Switzer, always says, 'It's okay to deal with a snake, as long as it's your snake.' No - they never had much of a chance to get their hooks in me too bad. I had good advisors and never got in deeper than I could swim. I let it be known from Day 1: You only get one chance to beat me up on a deal, and I'm done with you, so tread easy. I think most big owners let that be known, guys like Jess Jackson and such. I have kept the same people in play for 13 years, and they treat me good."
I gather you have a farm, Dream Walkin' Farm. What are the details on that, and why did you name it after that particular album? "It's a full 300-acre training facility with broodmare barns, training barns, a track, and double-fenced paddocks. In a way, this really is dreamwalkin' for me. There is nothing I do outside of my obvious night job that gets me as high as hitting the winner's circle. Horse racing gives you a chance to own a major sports franchise at any time, God willing and with some luck. I've heard it said in the training world several times that no man ever committed suicide with a promising 2-year-old in the barn."
I'm trying to remember if it was Cactus Ridge who you bought back for $1 million or something like that? Or was that someone else? Any regrets about that decision? "Actually, we bought Cactus back for $100,000 or so. It was Cactus Ridge's full brother Sebastian County. I have no regrets. We set the reserve at $1 million, and he didn't get there, even though there was live money at $900,000. But I always bet on myself and my horses. Cactus Ridge had just gone 4 for 4, winning three stakes, and won the Arlington-Washington Futurity without changing leads. Sebastian looked more like a two-turn horse to me, and I wanted to race him."
You played high school and even some semi-pro football. Does racing appeal to you because of a competitive streak? It seems like a lot of owners channel their own strong desire to win into their horses. "I don't know. I am competitive, but I'm a true horse lover. I think they are amazing. I bought a yearling years ago for $29,000 at Keeneland, and I named him Big Hubie after my father. After I signed the ticket, Arthur Hancock walked up and introduced himself. He said, 'I sold that horse, and I think he's a good buy.' He was a Boone's Mill out of Secretariat mare. I lost him for $35,000 later and was so upset I followed him up north to Hawthorne or somewhere, claimed him back, and won a couple of stakes with him. Arthur later called me up and said, 'Bravo, boy! Be good to the horses and they'll be good to you.' Big Hubie is at my home ranch, retired and living it up."
You've been following racing for quite a few years now. Any thoughts on the current decline in the sport? "There's just too much entertainment competing with our sport. It's viewed as old school, and it's not fast-paced enough for this modern attention-deficit-disorder generation. People won't wait 20-30 minutes for a race. That's why I am a huge supporter of slot machines. It's working everywhere. I lobbied on the stump -- exhaustively -- in Oklahoma to get Senate Bill 512 [slots at tracks] passed -- it saved Oklahoma racing."
"Beer for My Horses" was a big hit for you and a film you made, too. But do your horses ever actually get beer? I know there's a long tradition of adding a pint of Guinness to certain horses' feed. "I have one trainer that gives one of my horses a beer, and yep, he started winning."
Did you really appear in a Norwegian TV show? "I played the Nobel Peace Prize show and did some TV while there, the Norwegian Leno show or something. I couldn't understand them, and they sure couldn't understand me."