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Star owner says he's in for long haul

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Toby Keith leads a busy life as a top-selling country artist, the star of the motion picture "Broken Bridges," and the front man in a series of commercials for Ford. Yet he still finds time to be involved in his racing operation, which will be in the spotlight Saturday at Oaklawn Park when Rotary, a horse Keith co-owns with Arthur B. Hancock III, makes his stakes debut in the Grade 3, $100,000 Essex Handicap.

Keith and his family race as Dream Walkin Farms, and they have more than 20 horses stabled at tracks around the country, with a host of different trainers. Keith also has a major training center and breeding operation in Oklahoma. He said he is in racing for the long haul.

"I'm a fanatic about it," he said. "I'm very enthusiastic when it comes to studying pedigrees. I've done 10 years of research on pedigrees and had some great teachers in the business. Really, I haven't found anything that drives me like this does. I really have a good time doing it."

Oaklawn was among the first tracks Keith ever attended. He became an owner in 1996.

"My dad and his friends from his hometown always went out to the track," said Keith. "After I came into a little money and started having success with what I was doing, I bought him some racehorses, and it just evolved into what it is today."

Keith's farm sits on 260 acres and includes a seven-eighths-mile training track. "We have, at any given time, about 60 broodmares," he said. "That's Thoroughbreds, and we have about 12 or 15 Quarter Horses."

Cactus Ridge is one of Keith's best-known horses. Undefeated as a 2-year-old in 2003, he won the Grade 3 Arlington-Washington Futurity and was set to run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but he was injured before the race. Keith bred and raced Cactus Ridge, a son of Hennessy, and now stands him in Kentucky in partnership with Walmac. He has bred a number of his mares to Cactus Ridge, and he looks forward to the stallion's first runners hitting the track this spring.

Cactus Ridge is out of Double Park, who also has thrown another stakes winner for Keith. In partnership, Keith bred and races Harriett Lane, who won the La Habra last spring at Santa Anita. Keith said Double Park's latest foal is a Storm Cat. She also has a 2-year-old full brother to Cactus Ridge and a 3-year-old by Holy Bull who is in training at Oaklawn.

That Holy Bull colt is named Creekmore, and he is in training with Don Von Hemel, who also trains Rotary. Rotary has won his last three starts, all at the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Essex. He is a half-brother to Big Hubie, who was a stakes winner for Keith in 2002. Von Hemel said he has found that Keith's involvement in the racing industry has translated into new fans for the sport.

"I think he's brought racing a little more into the public eye," said Von Hemel. "Everybody knows Toby Keith. Now, a lot of [his fans] are getting to know racing that didn't know racing. I think it's been a great thing for racing."

Keith first hit the top of the country music charts in 1993 with the song "Shoulda Been a Cowboy." He followed with a string of hits, among them "How Do You Like Me Now?" and "I Wanna Talk About Me."

His talent as a singer and songwriter has earned him numerous honors, from the Academy of Country Music's Entertainer of the Year Award twice, to the distinction as Billboard's top-selling country artist in 2005. Keith is currently on tour, and is scheduled to play in Florida on Saturday.

No doubt, a big part of his day will be awaiting the results of the Essex.

Bullet for Hard Spun
Hard Spun worked a bullet five furlongs in 1:00.60 on Wednesday in preparation for the $250,000 Southwest here Feb. 19. He worked first after the renovation break under exercise rider Gina Suiter, and was part of a three-horse set for trainer Larry Jones.

Hard Spun broke off about four or five lengths behind his workmates, settled in behind them around the turn, and passed his rivals in the stretch as clockers carried him through fractions of 11.80 seconds for the first eighth of a mile, 23.60 for the opening quarter, and three furlongs in 35.80. His final quarter of a mile was in 24.60 seconds.

"He did everything good," said Jones. "We just set him in behind and let him have some dirt thrown on him. A lot horses will eat dirt, but they don't know how to respond once they do. So, we just let him sit in behind them and run around them when it was time to go, and he did it and did it easy. We didn't have to encourage him a lot to do it."