It was only fitting that Mike Keogh, sporting a subtle but unmistakable smile, stood close to the Woodbine finish line.
On a day that showcased some of horse racing’s top grass horses competing in prestigious events run on a world-renowned turf course, the hall of fame trainer, eyes firmly focused on a 7-year-old dark bay by the name of Wedgewood, watched intently as the horse loaded into the starting gate.
Keogh’s final race didn’t produce a fairytale finish. Wedgewood, at 18-1, would finish sixth in the Nearctic.
At the end of the race, a Grade 2 fixture for 3-year-olds and up, the 65-year-old Keogh made his way to the main track to greet his horse and jockey Jason Hoyte, wearing the familiar red-and-black striped silks of late owner-breeder Gus Schickedanz.
Even in defeat, the horse embodied a Keogh starter: meticulously prepared, competitive, and resolute to the last stride.
Keogh’s journey to that afternoon and those moments was 45 years in the making, one the man of few words had never envisioned taking.
Growing up in Epsom, England, Keogh, the son of respected horseman Norm Keogh, was drawn to horses at an early age. His first racing role came riding jump races at numerous tracks close to his home.
It was a trip to Canada in the mid-1970s to visit his sister and brother-in-law that would cement Keogh’s hope of a career in horse racing.
But the pursuit of that goal would come with its share of hurdles.
Turned down for a visa on several occasions, Keogh remained undaunted. His persistence would eventually be rewarded.
During one of his visits to Canada, he found out that trainer J.C. Meyer had a penchant for helping Europeans get into the country. A visit with the future Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame inductee opened the door for Keogh.
By the next spring, he was here to stay.
Keogh worked horses for Meyer and then moved on to assist trainer Mike Doyle in Florida at what’s now known as Payson Park, before he galloped the great Deputy Minister for John Tammaro.
“Mike came away with us – I think it was my first year of training – to Payson Park to gallop horses and he was just such a natural and did great work, and loved the whole deal,” recalled Doyle. “You could tell he was going to be very, very good if he decided to stay and do it.”
The odds of Keogh’s longtime hope of becoming a trainer grew significantly when he worked under the tutelage of another future hall of famer, Roger Attfield.
Taking the reins as Attfield’s assistant from 1986-93, Keogh was surrounded by an A-list group of horses, names like Izvestia, With Approval, Carotene, Alywow and Peteski.
The aspiring trainer had the treasured opportunity to travel with Play the King, Canada’s 2008 Horse of the Year, who was enshrined in the country’s Horse Racing Hall of Fame two years ago.
“He was a great horse,” lauded Keogh. “Having the chance to be around talent like that allowed you to learn so many things. You soaked all of it up like a sponge.”
It was a meeting with owner and breeder Gustav Schickedanz that would ultimately change both men’s lives.
“He was a great man,” said Keogh, who started training for Schickedanz in 1993. “We seemed to click right away. He believed in me, which really helped with my confidence. It also helped that he had great horses for me to train. Like everyone who trains in Canada, I had dreamed of winning the Queen’s Plate and we were lucky to do that twice, the first with Woodcarver in 1999.”
There were many other standouts for Schickedanz and Keogh during what would be their 27 years together.
Langfuhr, a handsome homebred son of Danzig, made headlines, several of them, for his connections.
Debuting at 3 on April 22, 1995, the son of Danzighe won that opener and then eight more times over 23 starts, his victories including Grade 1 triumphs in the Vosburgh, Carter and Met Mile. Langfuhr received the Sovereign Award in 1996 as Champion Sprinter and was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2004.
Ten years after they joined forces, Keogh and Schickedanz reached the pinnacle of Canadian racing when Schickedanz homebred Wando swept the Canadian Triple Crown and put his name in the history books.
His stablemate Mobil, also a homebred, would also carve out a highly successful racing life, including a second to Wando in the Queen’s Plate.
Nearly equal in talent, the horses, both sired by Langfuhr, couldn’t have been any different in personality.
“Wando, he would be the one to go shopping with the ladies,” offered Keogh in 2003, days ahead of the Queen’s Plate. “Mobil, he’d be the one to have your back in a bar fight.”
Both were spectacular on the racetrack.
After his nine-length Plate tour de force, Wando won the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie Race Track, and then prepared for the Breeders’ Stakes, final jewel in the Canadian Triple Crown.
It wasn’t only the demanding 1 ½ miles on the E.P. Taylor Turf Course Wando would have to contend with.
Seven horses, including a trio of Sam-Son silk bearers, stood in his way.
Despite the best efforts of many to deny Wando the rare triple, the striking chestnut and jockey Patrick Husbands persevered, crossing the wire 1 ½-length winners and into the history books.
In the winner’s circle, a beaming Schickedanz exclaimed, “He was Wando-ful.”
“He was just a fantastic horse,” said Keogh, of the eye-catching chestnut colt, who passed away of an apparent heart attack in January of 2014. “When you look back and watch his races, you see how huge of a heart he had, just giving everything he had whenever he would run.”
Husbands still sports a big smile when he recalls that amazing run.
“It was unbelievable,” said the champion rider. “Winning the Triple Crown was something I always dreamed about, but to have it come true… I still get emotional about it. Mike, he had the horse perfect for all those races.”
Still, Keogh, admittedly superstitious, was a bundle of nerves from the moment the gates opened on the Plate until the last strides of the Breeders’.
“I was overly superstitious,” he said with a laugh. “I’m also a worrier, so all of the fanfare after the Plate and throughout the Triple Crown was a lot.”
Wando would win two Sovereign Awards, voted Canada’s Horse of the Year, and top 3-year-old Colt, for that magical 2003 campaign.
Mobil carved out a celebrated career too, selected Champion Older Male Horse in 2004.
In their time together, Keogh and Schickedanz, inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2020 and 2009, respectively, won over 300 races together to go along with $21-plus million in purse earnings.
Framed photos of their successes adorned the walls of Keogh’s office on the Woodbine backstretch.
“Great memories,” said Keogh. “It’s always nice to look at those pictures and they take you back to those moments and the great people, too many to list, who I worked with over the years.”
Recollections he was reminded of by the many who came to see him off on a crisp autumn day at the Toronto oval.
It was no surprise, perhaps only to Keogh, that so many people came out, called or texted, on his retirement day.
Kind words were plenty, each compliment as much about the man as it was the horseman.
“That means a lot to me. Everybody wants to be liked and it’s just wonderful to hear people say all those nice things, it was a big surprise, to see how many people came out that day. It was very nice to see a lot of friends show up. It was great.”
Not just for Keogh.
Husbands, now a two-time Plate winner with eight Sovereign Awards as Canada’s top rider to his name, remembered the first time the two met.
“He was always a class man, so good to me right from the start. He was always a humble man. There is no one that ever said anything bad about him. Working with him and Wando was unbelievable.”
Jesse Campbell, who also enjoyed great success riding for Keogh, sent a video message from his home in Illinois.
“It was a pleasure riding for Mike. He treats his horses like they were family, and that’s how he treated me. I think the one thing I could say is that you are the definition of a horseman’s horseman. When you led a horse over, it didn’t matter the situation, I always knew that we had a chance, and that horse was being led over 100 percent.”
A sentiment echoed by both Attfield, and Lauri Kenny, longtime farm manager for Schickedanz.
“Mike is a very, very good friend and I thank him for everything he’s done for me and the Schickedanz family over the years,” said Kenny.
“You were the best I ever had, no question about it,” added Attfield with a smile. “We had a great rapport. We had some great times together, didn’t we? A lot of laughs and a lot of hard work.”
Both of which were staples throughout Keogh’s training life.
The many successes would not have been, he noted, if it wasn’t for his wife, Lou.
“She’s been the backbone. I know for sure I wouldn’t have been able to run my own business without Lou. She’s taken care of everything behind the scenes. I suppose her unofficial title would be CEO of the barn. She came into the barn with me every day. She was a troubleshooter. If someone didn’t show up, she’d be in the stalls, walking hots, going over with runners. We worked together for 30 years, and it was an amazing partnership.”
Not just on the racetrack.
When Keogh was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years ago, Lou, just as she did at her husband’s stable, was right by his side.
“After I got sick, she took care of me. I don’t think I would have made it without her. Things are pretty good at the moment. My numbers are pretty good. The main reason I’m retiring is that I don’t have the energy for it. I hardly come back to the races in the afternoon once I’m done in the morning. I’m knackered. But I did the radiation and that really helped with my numbers. But it is in my bones. They can’t cure that, but as long as it stays quiet, I’m good.”
One of many things that came to mind after an emotionally draining last day as a trainer.
“We’ve had a lot of fun over the years,” Keogh said. “I’ve always had a great rapport with the fans, especially with Wando. I’ve never seen as many fans as I did on Breeders’ day, cheering for him when he loaded into the gate. It was amazing and a reminder of how many nice horses I was fortunate enough to be part of. Even the ones that didn’t have ability, they were still nice to be around. They become family. Horses, they have so much character. They’re special.”
Just like Keogh.
Regrets are few.
“I wanted to run a horse in Epsom, my hometown. We nearly did it with Last Answer, but it just didn’t work out.”
And now, not far removed from that final race, Keogh will embark on a new beginning, a less stressful life with more time for a low-key existence, and the odd adventure or two.
“Lou and I want to do a little bit of travelling, to see Canada in a way we never have had the chance to. When you work in horse racing seven days a week, you don’t get to do anything, really. I’ve been to a lot of places in North America, but it’s been in the back of a horse van or flying.”
When the 2023 Woodbine Thoroughbred season gets out of the gates, Keogh will once again be trackside, but not anywhere near the number of times he was during his training days.
On those occasions, he will likely find his way to his preferred spot on the apron, yards from the finish line, close enough to get an up-close view of what he will miss the most.
“There are lots of things you will feel nostalgic for. But I will always feel a connection to the horses. Whether they won or lost, every single one was like family to me. They’ve given me a lifetime of happiness I could never measure. I was blessed to have had so many nice horses. I won’t be the one sending them over any more, but I’ll still love watching them. That won’t ever change.”
Nor will the man who had a knack for making a great first impression and leaving a lasting one.
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms