Following a quiet spring during the Pimlico Race Course meet, trainer Tim Keefe has gotten off to a sizzling start at Laurel Park's summer meet.
The 48-year-old native of Laurel, Md., won with six of his first 17 starters to lead all trainers through the first three weekends of the 24-day meet that began July 1. He was victorious on five of the first seven racing days for an average win mutuel of $18.57, topped by Connemara Coast's $54.60 upset of stakes winners Noteworthy Peach and Mr Palmer in an optional claiming event July 10.
"Pimlico was a little bit slow and the horses are just kind of coming together at the right time that Laurel meet opened," Keefe said. "I think there's certainly a benefit when you can walk right out of your stall and run, as well, but the horses that I've won with were coming along at the right time for the start of Laurel."
Even with a stable that numbers 40 at Laurel and a family that includes his wife, Rumsey, and their four children, Keefe's training regimen doesn't stop with the horses. He is also an accomplished triathlete, having competed in several events over the years including two at the full Ironman distance as fundraisers for different charities.
Keefe's first full Ironman, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run, was the Revolution3 Triathlon in Sandusky, Ohio, in September 2011 to benefit the Maryland Therapeutic Riding School and Thoroughbred Placement and Rescue. He finished in 11 hours and 42 minutes, well under the 17-hour time limit.
In December 2013 Keefe and his family traveled to Mexico, where he improved his time to 11:15.08 in the Ironman Cozumel, competing to raise money for the Ulman Cancer Fund and the Foxie G Foundation for retired racehorses.
"I love swimming and I just love being active," Keefe said. "When I stopped galloping in the morning I got unfit and I just wanted something else to do. I coupled that with the training for the Ironman, and believe it or not it's a bit of a stress reliever, too, just to be able to get out and run and bike and do all that stuff.
"I like to see how far I can push myself, so I thought I'll try the Ironman and see if I can do it, and I did it. It's kind of addictive.
"It has been great. I've thoroughly enjoyed doing it and I've been fortunate to be able to do it, too. I've got a great wife and four great kids and I'm very, very fortunate. I've got good horses and really good owners to train for here in Maryland. Everything's going great right now."
Beyond maintaining the health of his horses and himself, Keefe is also a key player in keeping Maryland's Thoroughbred industry growing and thriving. A member of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association board since 2005, Keefe was elected as only its third president in 2014 while also serving as chairman of the Health and Welfare Committee.
Keefe is also president of the Maryland Horseman's Assistance Fund, vice president of Maryland Million Ltd., and active in numerous charitable endeavors. He is proud of the dramatic physical and financial improvements in the state's racing over recent years.
"It's good to be involved, doing a lot with the MTHA and all of its board members," he said. "(We're) doing a lot of good right now, I think, for the sport."
Keefe is approaching 500 career wins since he took out his trainer's license in 1993 after graduating from the University of Maryland with degrees in business and economics as one of the first recipients of the Maryland Thoroughbred Scholarship Fund. It was the natural progression for someone who grew up and worked around horses from a young age.
An A-rated rider in Pony Club, he had an after-school job at a riding stable by age 13 and five years later was working as an exercise rider for late trainer Jack Mobberley. He later worked for trainers Ron Cartwright and Jimmy Murphy, rode amateur flat and steeplechase races, and helped prepare young horses for his future father-in-law, Billy Gilbert.
"I rode show horses, event horses, fox hunted, did some steeplechase, and broke yearlings and 2-year-olds. I've done a little bit of everything," Keefe said. "I've always liked racing. When I was a kid I'd come out here on the weekends and walk hots so I always kind of had it in me a little bit.
"When I graduated from the University of Maryland I decided to go into training horses. I kind of always knew that was what I wanted to do but I thought it was important to get through school, learn how to run a business and get an education."
Keefe has campaigned several stakes winners such as Red's Round Table, Celtic Innis, Frisky Thunder, and Anarex, but his best known charge was the popular Eighttofasttocatch. Owned by Sylvia Heft and her late husband, Arnold, the son of Not for Love was retired in December 2014 after winning his career finale with 17 wins from 49 starts, 12 stakes wins, and more than $1 million in purse earnings.
Eighttofasttocatch lives on Keefe's 27-acre Avalon Farm in Sandy Spring, Md., where his wife runs a successful business retraining racehorses for other disciplines.
"Eighttofasttocatch was definitely the nicest one," he said. "I had him from start to finish. I bought him as a yearling and retired him after his 8-year-old campaign for a longtime owner. We got to the million-dollar mark with him. Now he's mine. He belongs to me, and my wife and daughter ride him in his second career as an event horse. It has just been super. I get to go home every afternoon and see him out in the field, so it's good."
Even without Eighttofasttocatch in his barn for the first time, Keefe set career highs with 281 starters and more than $1.4 million in purse earnings in 2015, and his 40 wins were just three shy of his lifetime best set in 2011.
"You never replace him and you never look to replace him but you kind of look for that next big horse that you might have," Keefe said. "I've got a couple right now that look like they have ability, it's just whether I can keep them together for long enough to try and develop them.
"That's what I like doing is develop them, start them out when they're young and watch them progress and come along. I've got a couple nice ones that look like if they stay together can kind of go along the same route he did."
Keefe is hoping to maintain his momentum through the summer meet and into Laurel's fall stand that begins in mid-September and runs through the end of the year. One of his focal points is the annual Maryland Million Day program, now in its 31st year, on Oct. 17 at Laurel.
"The Maryland Million is certainly a big day for a lot of Maryland breeders and Maryland people, and I train for a lot of Maryland breeders," he said. "I kind of look right now and see what I have in the barn and how things are going and what fits on that day. I try to work my schedule around that if I can.
"I just try to do well and improve off the prior year. Maybe win a few more races than last year or a little bit more money than I did the prior year. Just try to go out there and put horses in where they can win and be as successful as I can."