To describe Keen Ice as a lovable loser is only half fair. As a horse that launches his patented late move almost without fail, he is lovable.
But although the 5-year-old son of Curlin shows only three lifetime victories in 23 starts – he went from Aug. 29, 2015 until July 8 of this year between wins -- it would hardly be justified to describe him as a loser.
A “loser” does not reel in Triple Crown winner American Pharoah as Keen Ice did in an unforgettable Travers in the summer of 2015. A “loser” does not defeat accomplished Shaman Ghost as he did in the Grade 2 Suburban on July 8 at Belmont Park. And a “loser” is not rated a 9-5 favorite to win the Grade 1, $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup as part of a seven-horse field on Saturday.
Beyond that, no one would dare disparage a horse that has earned more than $3 million in behalf of Donegal Racing. At least not in front of Jerry Crawford, who forms partnerships in the Donegal name.
When Crawford was asked how he feels about Keen Ice, who will head to tradition-rich Calumet Farm for stud duty upon his retirement, he replied, “Like a child you’re overly proud of.”
Keen Ice embodies the kind of horse Donegal seeks.
“Donegal Racing has a strong preference for horses that run classic distances and do it over extended careers, and in Keen Ice we have both of those,” Crawford said. “Our partners have an incredible affection for him. They love that he’s still racing.”
Not that it has been easy. A fissure fracture in his left hind leg was discovered after he uncharacteristically ran eighth to California Chrome in the Dubai World Cup early in 2016. He was moved to trainer Todd Pletcher after that.
“We can’t say enough about the job Todd Pletcher has done to bring him past his injury and bring out the best of him again,” Crawford said.
Crawford attributes Keen Ice’s failure to win more often to his style and the elite company he keeps.
“It’s very difficult to be a horse that comes from the back of the pack against the best horses in the world and usually run against large fields,” he noted. “You have everything stacked against you.”
Keen Ice may have much in his favor in the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup. Crawford described the mile-and-a-quarter distance as “perfect.” The seven-horse field also should help jockey Jose Ortiz since there is potentially less traffic to weave through.
Pletcher is cautiously optimistic. “We’re looking forward to getting him back at a mile and a quarter,” he said. “He’s been training well and we hope he can give us the same kind of effort he did in the Suburban.”
Pavel, a blossoming 3-year-old making only his fourth career start, is the 5-2 second choice. He comes off a huge effort in the Grade 3 Smarty Jones at Parx Racing, dominating by six lengths for West Coast-based trainer Doug O’Neill. Third choice Diversify (7-2) displayed blistering speed when he romped by 11 ½ lengths in the Evan Shipman Stakes for New York-breds at Saratoga Race Course this summer. He may take some running down.
The Gold Cup is part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, meaning the winner earns a fees-paid automatic entry into the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Del Mar. This would be Keen Ice’s third consecutive Classic appearance. He ran fourth in that contest in 2015; he earned a hefty third-place check last year.
No matter what, Keen Ice is nearing the end of his racing career. His new, fun-filled life as a stallion is beckoning. Crawford noted that any decision to advance to the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational early next year at Gulfstream Park would have to be made in conjunction with Calumet.
“We wish that the Pegasus was a mile and a quarter instead of a mile and an eighth because a mile and a quarter is a true classic distance. I don’t believe a mile and an eighth is,” Crawford said. “But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t show up.”