By Kimberly French
As 48-year-old Bob Key walked into the restaurant back in 1981, the last thing on his agenda was becoming involved in harness racing. He was meeting Billy Haughton, one of the sport's foremost figures and a Hall of Famer, to secure him as a witness for one of his upcoming cases.
Haughton eventually steered their conversation to horses and Key, intent on accomplishing his goal, humored him when Haughton began discussing ownership possibilities. Haughton, who was killed in a driving accident in 1985, got the last laugh.
Nearly three decades later, Key owns four farms, has bred 970 horses and captured the 1993 Hambletonian and Yonkers trot with his homebred American Winner.
"I met Billy in October and I really needed him as a witness, so I played along nicely when he got to talking about his horses," the Leechburg, PA, resident explained. "I actually forgot all about it and in February, he called me after he went to the sales and said, ‘You are now the proud owner of a quarter of four horses.' I haven't stopped since."
Key, who now owns a manufacturing business that sells parts for space shuttles, was fortunate right from the start. His filly Amneris (1:53.1m) established world records, earned nearly a million dollars and was the fastest 2-year-old pacer in the history of the sport in 1984.
Another filly, the trotter BJ's Pleasure (1:59.4f) bankrolled more than $200,000 after recovering from a severe slab fracture sustained during her freshman campaign in 1985 and then went on to produce 20 foals.
Her offspring include American Winner (1.52.3m, $1,302,451), who also proved to be a top sire, Super Pleasure (1:58.0f, $827,238), BJ's Mac (1:57.4m, $376,210), Jonlin (1:57.2m, $252,836) and Pleasure and Power (1:55.1s, $142, 223). Andoversure, her final foal by Andover Hall, is a 2-year-old and will debut later this year.
"She definitely made her contribution to improving the breed," Key said with a chuckle. "She was such a fluidly gaited horse and she passed that on. She is one of a kind, just a super mare and even after having all those foals, she is still a 36-24-36."
Since he had enjoyed success with fillies and mares, Key decided to delve into breeding in 1988 after he realized if he sold his horses, he would not receive what they were worth.
"Back then Hanover and Castleton were the big farms," he remembered. "I was advised not to get into that side of the business, but those farms would only offer to take my mares if I would accept a credit to purchase one of their yearlings at the sales. They had more value than that, so I started boarding my mares at a farm and once I saw the bill for the 20 I had at the time, I decided it would be cheaper to buy my own place."
Currently, Key has 115 broodmares and owns nearly 500 acres in Armstrong County, which is about an hour and 15 minutes from The Meadows. While he acknowledges this part of the business can be quite discouraging, within five years he had bred a Hambletonian winner and feels there is a formula for success.
"Billy Haughton told me there are three words you have to remember to be a winner in this sport and those are breeding, breeding, and breeding," Key said with a laugh. "That is exactly true. Now it doesn't always come out, but you have no chance without it. You have to breed the best with the best and then hope for the best.
"Soundness is everything and I breed to stallions most people don't like," he continued. "If the sire raced 50 or 60 times, I like that, but too many of our stallions are like Thoroughbreds and race 12 or 15 times before they are put to stud. I like mares that have raced 40 to 90 times too. If the parents are sound, that gives you a good chance of getting a sound foal, then you hope for the heart inside."
After a foal hits the ground, Key believes how they are raised contributes to their future performance on the racetrack.
"We don't keep them in a hothouse," he said. "We turn them out in the fields in small groups to keep them moving and hope for no injuries. I think it builds their muscle and competitive spirit. That way we get more alpha horses. Also, our horses have unlimited access to hay and grain. We use a special grain developed by the Ohio State University called PDI and if one of my horses isn't doing well when they are racing, I'll always put them back on that same feed."
When it is time for his horses to commence their careers, Key must decide who will condition certain horses and he claims that is the most difficult choice in the business. He used to operate his own stable in the early 1990's, but it became too much with the size of his breeding operation.
Key now uses 10 conditioners for his stock and is not averse to trying someone new if things don't work out. In fact, he employed Milton Smith, who was in the Navy for 21 years and was a horse van driver, as American Winner's trainer two months before the colt captured the Hambletonian. Smith became the first African American conditioner to win that race.
"Finding a good trainer is the hardest part of the whole sport," he said. "Some trainers are better with different types of horses and some trainers can find something wrong with a horse when no one else can. I talk to my trainers all the time and get weekly reports and if I see they are getting down on a horse, I switch them to another trainer. I give each horse three chances with three different trainers and my last resort is a retired trainer who has a small farm and training track. He gives me final say on whether the horse will make it or not."
Since he decided not to sell any yearlings last year, Key has 79 two-year-olds this year, including, until he was sidelined by injury, a top Hambletonian contender in the Broadway Hall colt Encore Encore. His 2009 debut at The Meadows on May 18 was only a fifth off the world record and was a new track standard. Key hopes his other Hambletonian-eligible colts Winning Mister, who competed in last year's Breeders Crown two-year-old trot final, and American Journey can get him back to the Meadowlands the second week in August.
"Encore is such a nice horse and we never dreamed we would have to go that fast with him his first race back," he explained. "We tried to get him ready for the Hambletonian, but he's so talented that we are just going to be conservative with him and have him ready by the end of August or September. Winning Mister is also talented, but we are hoping he grows up mentally."
Key has no intention of decreasing his involvement in harness racing and feels choosing Standardbreds over their glitzier Thoroughbred cousins remains the best choice.
"Most people think if you are going to succeed, you need buy horses at the auctions in Lexington or Harrisburg for $350,000," he said. "Our horses are looked down upon because they are homebreds, but the nice thing about this business is that even as a novice, I was able to breed to the top stallions. In the Thoroughbred business, even though I have good mares, I would never be able to breed to the best stallions.
"We also race for the same amount of money really because our horses race more," Key continued. "Overall, I'm not taking anything away from the Thoroughbreds, but as an investment and for fun the Standardbred business is much better. That's why I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing and hope for the best."