DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- On the bare face of things, the decision to use blinkers on Dubai World Cup starter Keen Ice is unusual. The 4-year-old has made 15 starts, none in blinkers, and the equipment change comes as Keen Ice gets set to line up in the richest race of his life, and while he is stabled and training thousands of miles from trainer Dale Romans's winter base in Florida.
But the unusual nature of the change runs still deeper: Romans is a trainer who does whatever he can to avoid using blinkers under any circumstances.
"He doesn't like them," said Tammy Fox, Romans's longtime companion and one of his stable's main work riders for years. Fox traveled here with Keen Ice six weeks ago and has ridden him every day, including in his blinkered workout last Saturday, which went in a strong 59.20 seconds for five furlongs. "We have probably 125 horses in training, and I'd say now, counting him, maybe three wear them."
Daily Racing Form's Formulator shows that Romans over the last five years has never added blinkers to a horse in a graded stakes. Only a handful of his graded-stakes starters during that span have raced in blinkers, and only two have won, Afleeting Lady, whom Romans developed himself, and Court Vision, who came to Romans late in his career already racing in blinkers and upset the 2011 Breeders' Cup Mile while wearing the hood.
The impetus for trying blinkers came from Ryan Moore -- widely considered the world's best jockey -- who after riding Keen Ice to a seventh-place finish March 5 in Round 3 of the Al Maktoum Challenge suggested experimenting.
"Ryan said that he thought he lost focus a couple times, and it'd be worth breezing him once in them and seeing how he liked it," said Jerry Crawford, president of Donegal Racing, Keen Ice's owner.
"The horse clearly hates them. He breezed in 59 and 1," Crawford added sarcastically.
"I think it helped him," said Fox. "He got into the work quicker. He didn't dislike them. It's not like he backed up in the work. Like I said to Jerry earlier today, you never know if it's really going to help them until they run."
Equipment aside, Keen Ice has looked as well this week as any horse training for the $10 million World Cup. He was the only horse to beat American Pharoah in 2015, and while he had pace help in taking down the champion in the Travers Stakes, a swift pace also seems plausible Saturday night. The front-runners might be backing up, and, hooded, Keen Ice might be more focused this time on catching them.