Thoroughbred Makeover: O’Keefe Doubling Down With Promising Duo

Denman’s Call and Phantomof the Nile with Erin O’Keefe, who will prepare both of them for the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. (Jackie Barr photo)

Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, there was plenty of horsepower, but not many horses. And yet I can’t remember a time in my life that I didn’t love horses. 

Without access to them, I read everything I could that in any way involved horses: every book in the library, BloodHorse, the newspaper at the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup. I would camp out in the living room all day and watch the Breeders’ Cup with my mom, making dollar bets on the winner, taking notes, soaking up the chance to watch racing. I would watch the Kentucky Derby and drink Mountain Dew out of my mom’s old Derby glasses, and I fell in love with Thoroughbreds.

Ten years ago, I moved to Lexington to study equine science, and I have since immersed myself in the Thoroughbred industry. I have cared for them, brought them into the world, sent them off to the racetrack, welcomed them back when they retire, and helped them find new homes.

I am currently the director of operations for Taste of Victory Stables, a low-cost racing syndicate that is focused on bringing new owners into the industry. I have the opportunity to share my love of Thoroughbreds racehorses every day in my position, and I am excited for the chance to share my love of Thoroughbreds with the sport-horse world through the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover. I will be targeting the Makeover with two horses, not because I intended to take on two projects, but because two very special horses found their way back to me.

Phantomof the Nile pondering his next career. (Erin O’Keefe photo)

I first met Phantom (Phantomof the Nile) when he was about a week old. At the time, I was working for Darby Dan Farm, and we were recruiting him to sell as a yearling. Because of that, I was able to see him every month of his early life. He was an awkward, leggy foal, but I always had a soft spot for him and thought he would do well. As he progressed through his yearling year, he blossomed physically and started to look like a serious sales horse. He is by Pioneerof the Nile, the same sire as the great American Pharoah. With American Pharoah ending the Triple Crown drought the year before, expectations were high for his sale results. He sold at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings for a whopping $300,000. I said goodbye to him the next day, as he loaded up to go to Florida and learn to be a racehorse.

I briefly spoke to the agent who purchased him and hoped to be able to keep tabs on him. If he wasn’t going to be a great racehorse, I knew he had a promising future as a sport horse.

In a fortuitous turn of events, I took a new job a few months later, at the farm where his new owners boarded! I was able to speak with the agent regularly and get updates on how he was doing as well as pictures. We all eagerly awaited his first race, which didn’t happen until the end of his 3-year-old season. He had a few minor setbacks in training, but mostly he just wouldn’t stop growing (he’s currently 17.1 hands). Finally, on Dec. 13, 2018, he made his first start, at Aqueduct … and he finished dead last. There was nothing physically wrong with him, he simply didn’t want to be a racehorse.

So, the decision was made to retire him. He was sent to the farm I was working at to let down and find a new home. After being shown to several people and receiving an offer, the owners made a decision that shocked me. Rather than sell him to a reseller, they decided to just give him to me. Having purchased my first OTTB not long before, I wasn’t in a position to buy him when he came back, and they knew that. Because I already had one project horse, I subsequently gave him to my boyfriend as a project, on the condition that I got to ride him whenever I wanted. As he got settled into his new boarding farm, it became clear he was still fairly mentally immature and physically growing. We decided it was best for him to spend all of 2019 turned out in a field, learning how to be a horse (while also staying Thoroughbred Makeover-eligible).

I am so happy to have the opportunity to take Phantom to the makeover, and I couldn’t be more excited to showcase him in a discipline he can excel at! Phantom has just started to work consistently under saddle, and we are currently targeting dressage at the makeover.

Denman’s Call returning to Central Kentucky for his second career. (Daniel Schmidt photo)

In addition to Phantom, I will also be taking Denman’s Call to the makeover. Long before he was Denman’s Call, he was little Maggie McGowan ’13. But since that’s a terrible name for a colt, he became Mr. Magoo. I taught him to lead and to stand for grooming and the farrier. I helped carry him in from the field when I thought he broke his leg (turned out he just really didn’t like walking in deep mud). I listened to him nicker back to Northern Afleet, his sire, when he would hang out at the back of his paddock. I walked him for monthly evaluations and watched him grow and develop. Then, I got to watch him go out into the world to become a successful racehorse.

I was so proud when he broke his maiden at first asking, and then he immediately came back to finish third in a Grade 2 (losing to Nyquist and Exaggerator). And the next year he reached the pinnacle of racing, and won the Grade 1 Triple Bend Stakes at Santa Anita. He achieved everything his owners could have dreamed of.

Now that his time as a racehorse is done, he has come back home to Central Kentucky. Once again, I get to help him navigate life. He’s a little bigger now (though still only 15.2 hands), but he’s still my little Magoober. I’m not sure what direction we’ll go; he gets to decide. We are currently targeting competitive trail, but we will see what he wants to do. You can follow his day-to-day updates on Facebook at Denman’s Call- Road to 2020 Thoroughbred Makeover.

To all those that disparage racing, especially those that say we are in it for the money, I hope they hear these stories. Know that my name was never associated with these horses — I was just the barn foreman at Bona Terra A barn at Taylor Made Farm, and sales coordinator at Darby Dan. I never owned them and never made a cent on them. But they were always “my” kids.

I tracked them, spoke to their trainers and owners/agents, cheered them on, and loved them. Every racehorse out there has people like me behind them. The foaling team that brought them into the world, the grooms who guided them, the sales team that connected them to their racing teams, hot walkers, grooms, and exercise riders. So many people who do what they do because they love these horses.

I am so excited to share this journey with all of you and all the others who loved my boys along the way.

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