by Dan Tordjman
The final chapter in the career of Eighttofasttocatch will be written at Laurel Park on Saturday in the $125,000 Jennings Handicap. A storybook ending would have trainer Tim Keefe walking the Maryland-bred son of Not For Love into the winner’s circle one last time – this time, as a millionaire.
“I’ve never had a horse to break the million dollar mark, so that’s significant for me,” Keefe said.
All that stands between Eighttofasttocatch and the million dollar milestone, heading into the final race of his career, is a mere $2,030. He’ll clear the seven-figure threshold by finishing in the top half of the nine-horse field but, for Keefe, it sure would be nice if Eighttofasttocatch won the mile race.
A victory on Saturday would simultaneously make Eighttofasttocatch a millionaire and the first four-time winner of the Jennings, now in its 73rd running. The only other horse to win it three times was Little Bold John (1987, 1988, 1989).
“When I was galloping horses 20 years ago, I remember horses (like) Little Bold John and some of these other cool horses, hard-knocking horses,” Keefe said. “Fast-forward 20 years from there and now I’ve got a horse that, I think, probably, a lot of people will remember Eighttofasttocatch as a pretty cool horse running around Maryland. That’s significant to me. That means a lot.”
The race also means a lot because Keefe was there from the first time “Catcher,” as he’s affectionately called, stepped onto a racetrack back in 2008. In fact, Keefe was there even earlier. He was the one who spotted Eighttofasttocatch at the 2007 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Fall Yearling Sale, and advised the late Arnold “Arnie” Heft to purchase the horse, which he did, for $47,000.
After getting off to a slow start as a 2-year-old, Eighttofasttocatch broke his maiden in his sixth career start. The victory came at Laurel, the site of 14 of Eighttofasttocatch’s 16 victories. Included on his Laurel resume are three wins in the Maryland Million Classic (2011, 2013, 2014), two scores in the Harrison E. Johnson Memorial Stakes (2011, 2012) and a victory in the Japan Racing Association Stakes (2011).
“He likes Laurel, he likes the one turn mile and he loves this race, the Jennings,” Keefe said.
Eighttofasttocatch comes into the Jennings off of a 4 1/2-length victory in the Maryland Million Classic in October. Going into that race, Keefe admitted feeling even more pressure than he does now because it was on the heels of one of the worst performances in his horse’s career — a last place finish in the Japan Racing Association Stakes in September. It was the first start of 2014 for the eight-year-0ld gelding and Keefe wondered if Father Time had finally caught up with Eighttofasttocatch.
“I wasn’t sure,” Keefe said. “Did he not run a good race in the Japan because he isn’t into it anymore and he’s kind of lost a step? But then when he ran such a huge race on Maryland Million Day, I knew he was the old Catcher. He’s been training great ever since.”
The Jennings will not only mark the end of a great racing career, it will also be the final race for the Heft stable. At the time of his death this past March, 94-year-old Arnie – who once played minor league baseball, was a National Basketball Association referee, and later co-owned the Baltimore Bullets – had six horses. Five of them have since been given away, sold or claimed. One of those, Red’s Round Table, will run in Saturday’s Willa on the Move Stakes. All that remains in the Heft name is Eighttofasttocatch.
“A lot of emotions,” said Harriet Feldman, one of Heft’s daughters. “Unfortunately, my sisters and I, and my husband, couldn’t keep up with horses financially… I know my father had hoped we would but he didn’t want us going into debt and there was no way, in talking to our financial people, that we could keep it going.”
For Feldman and her husband Marty, who said he was “best friends” with Arnie, liquidating Heft’s racing stock has been a tough pill to swallow. Heft’s daughters could be seen weeping in the winner’s circle at Laurel Park after Eighttofasttocatch won the Maryland Million Classic. They genuinely felt as if their father had been there to witness it, or that he might have even willed it.
The Jennings promises to be just as emotional for the Heft family, which will have strength in numbers at Laurel on Saturday. Feldman said she’s expecting a large turnout by friends, immediate family and extended family from Florida to Texas.
“Eighttofasttocatch was my father’s dream. As far as making a million dollars, we’re only a couple thousand short and, hopefully, if we win this race we will have fulfilled my father’s dream,” Feldman said.
If Feldman can take any comfort in the finality that comes with Eighttofasttocatch’s last race, it’s that he’ll only be a 20-minute drive away when he’s retired. The horse will be going home with Keefe and his wife Rumsey to their farm in Sandy Spring, MD – just as Arnie had wished. There, with the Keefes, he’ll get some rest before he starts training to become an event horse.
“So, that’s kind of exciting,” Keefe said. “While we finish kind of one chapter in his life, we start a new one.”
Of course, there’s still another race to be run, another chapter to be written. While all involved hope it ends with a win, the truth is that the story of Eighttofasttocatch — win or lose on Saturday — is already a fairy tale.