WEST VIRGINIA - Most people know Toby Keith for his success as a country music singer-songwriter, and for good reason. The 50-year-old Keith has had 19 Number One singles, and this year marks the release of his fifteenth studio album.
But Keith is also a Thoroughbred racehorse owner. And one of his horses, a three- year-old colt with the misspelled name of Sherriff Cogburn, will go to the post this Saturday in the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort.
Keith - who campaigns horses under the nom de course Dream Walkin' Farms - goes by the name Toby Covel for his racing ventures. (His full name is Toby Keith Covel, as many if not most of his fans know.) Thoroughbreds do not constitute a minor pursuit for Keith. Dream Walkin' Farms is a 260-acre breeding and training operation situated near the city of Pauls Valley in south central Oklahoma. Horses he owns have made multiple starts this year at such tracks as Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Oaklawn Park, Arlington Park and Prairie Meadows.
Bet on the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Race Track at Off Track Betting online racebook
He purchases some of his racing stock at Keeneland auctions, and that's where Keith obtained Sherriff Cogburn, for $50,000 at the 2009 September Yearling Sale. The trainer of record for Sherriff Cogburn is 77-year-old Don Von Hemel, although most of the conditioning chores are handled by assistant Bridget Lambert, who's shipping with the colt to Mountaineer.
"We're coming by van from Prairie Meadows - we expect to arrive on Tuesday morning," Lambert said. "My mom and dad used to race at Mountaineer back when it was Waterford Park. This will be the first time I've been there since then."
Sherriff Cogburn has a lightly-race career record that includes five career starts, two victories and trio of placings (note - he has never finished off the board) and purse earnings of $120,800. He won his career debut, on July 1 of last year in maiden special weight company at Arlington Park by seven lengths. Since then, Sherriff Cogburn has done all of his racing at Prairie Meadows, which is in the town of Altoona, a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa. In August of last year, he was a 9 1/4 - length winner of the Prairie Meadows Juvenile Mile.
His initial effort as a three-year-old came on April 23 in the six-furlong Golden Circle Stakes., where Sherriff Cogburn finished a solid second as the even-money favorite. Next came the Prairie Meadows Mile on June 4, where Sherriff Cogburn was favored again, this time at 5-2.
But the race was severely marred when one horse, Arcadian, suffered a fatal injury. "And that caused a pile-up of three other horses," said Lambert. "Sherriff Cogburn didn't go down, but was knocked sideways. We finished third."
In his most recent effort, Sherriff Cogburn finished second, beaten two lengths by fellow West Virginia Derby contender Prayer for Relief in the Grade 3 Iowa Derby on June 25. Within a head of the lead at the eighth-pole, Sherriff Cogburn was on the rail, with Prayer for Relief to his outside. Advantage Prayer for Relief.
A Kentucky-bred, Sherriff Cogburn is by the late sire Vindication, who was North America's two-year-old male champion in 2002. (Vindication was also the last son of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew to enter stud duty.) Sherriff Cogburn's dam, Sweet Nanette, won a quartet of sprint stakes during her own racing days. She has been sold four times at auction - as a yearling, as a two-year-old and twice for breeding purposes, most notably fetching a price of $575,000 as a broodmare at Keeneland in November, 2004.
Keith initially got involved in the Thoroughbred business in 1996 (he also owns Quarter Horses). His two-year-old Cactus Ridge won the Grade 2 Arlington-Washington Futurity at Arlington Park in 2003. Trainers he engages further include Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and Jack Van Berg.
Perry Compton, who has ridden Sherriff Cogburn in all of his three-year-old efforts to date, will again be aboard for the West Virginia Derby. Compton, a South Dakota native, is 59 years old and stands five feet, eight inches - which makes him considerably older than most jockeys, and taller, too. But Compton's talents have gained him 28 wins at Prairie Meadows this year, good enough for eighth position in the rider standings. He's had over 40 years of riding experience, and during the past 35 of them has been credited with 3,502 wins. Should Sherriff Cogburn triumph on Saturday, it will be Compton's richest score to date. The same for Von Hemel. And the same for Toby Keith.