Flying Changes: ‘Catcher’ enjoys fast start to second career

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Tucked away amidst evergreen-lined fences in Sandy Spring, Maryland, is the lovely Avalon Farm. Trails wind through the woods that surround a beautiful, rustic main house, making the farm look truly like something out of a dream and the perfect home for the dream-like Thoroughbred.

Multiple Maryland Million Classic winner Eighttofasttocatch, better known these days as “Catcher,” has sprung into a new life of eventing with the wife of his former trainer and is lucky enough to call this place home.

Rumsey Keefe is the District Commissioner of Iron Bridge Hounds Pony Club, as well as a successful international event rider experienced in competing Thoroughbreds through the levels. She grew up in a horse family, with her father, Bill Gilbert, breaking and training young horses for the track, while her mother, Trish Gilbert, ran a pony club that Rumsey graduated from as an A.

As a young rider, Rumsey enjoyed competing for Area II on the 2 star team where she earned individual silver in 1992 and a team gold in 1993. She transitioned to retraining Thoroughbreds for second careers while in college, as well as galloping on the track. She met her husband Tim Keefe during her days in Pony Club, and the two collaborated on transitioning Thoroughbreds from on the track to second careers.

Catcher, the now 10-year old son of Not for Love out of Too Fast To Catch, by Nice Catch, entered the Keefe’s lives in 2007 and spent periods of his offseason from racing at their family farm. After racing for Sylvia and the late Arnold Heft, he retired a little more than a year ago with a bankroll of $1,072,970, and career-closing win in the Jennings Handicap at Laurel Park just after his third victory in the Maryland Million Classic.

He began retraining for eventing a few short weeks after, with great success.

Rumsey Keefe laughed as she discussed her initial goal of bringing him home just “to be able to ride him around the ring.”

“I knew he liked to work and would be good, but I just didn’t know,” she said.

Catcher’s first few rides were spent with his normal exercise rider, Peter Brown-Whale, who had a close bond with the horse. Rumsey had the duo do some basic work in the ring, and then ride around the property with the company of her daughter, Ryan, and one of their other horses.

“He was really inquisitive,” Rumsey said. “He seemed to really like the new adventure and was happy to do his own thing, riding along with the company.”

Rumsey took the reins shortly after and since then the duo has taken off.

“The biggest thing was his insecurity,” she said. “He was so attached to that goat on the track so it was all about finding him company and then him understanding he had to leave that company and still behave himself and relax.”

Catcher’s racetrack goat, Gigi, was credited (at least, partially) with being a factor to his racing success, as he seemed to win more races after adopting her as a 4-year old.

The two were very attached but parted ways with Eighttofasttocatch’s change of careers. There was a happy ending, as Gigi found a new racehorse buddy and Catcher found an old broodmare to keep him company.

Eighttofasttocatch had an impressive first outing at the Maryland Horse Trials’ Twilight Eventing last summer, earning low score of the day, and closed the season this fall with a phenomenal performance at the Virginia Horse Trials that would have earned him Area II Beginner Novice champion of 2015 had there not been an unfortunate rider error on cross country.

“Low score of the day on our first outing was pretty spectacular,” Rumsey said. “He was so calm and so quiet in the dressage ring. Then, even at Virginia when I screwed up the schedule and didn’t walk the course on cross country … the whole overnight experience of being down there, he seemed really happy to be a one-on-one horse and I really like that about him. He seems way more comfortable with everything and I can expect to ride him like an older horse now, rather than baby him so much.”

Eighttofasttocatch gained more popularity when he and Keefe participated in the Retired Racehorse Project’s Thoroughbred Makeover event in October at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

“The Makeover was very educational,” Keefe said. “It was definitely a big thing to do, there were a lot of different types of horse, different types of people. I wasn’t really down there to be competitive; I more wanted to show what the Thoroughbred could do. To realize that there is an afterlife and also to show that racehorses can be raced much past 5 years old.

“Catcher didn’t really start winning until he was 4. It’s all about managing the horse properly and taking him to the best races and not beating him up if this isn’t the right discipline. I kind of went down there just to show what a little red head hot head can do. And yeah, he might be a really fast racehorse, but you really have to kick him around in another discipline.”

Rumsey aims to finish the 2016 season at the training level, and aspires to eventually put her 15-year-old daughter, Ryan, in the irons, with plans of the pair competing to at least the one star level.

“He’s smart, he likes the routine, but he just needs to feel comfortable,” Keefe said. “He’s a bit of a prince, and you can’t crush his ego, but you also have to say, ‘come on, we’re going to work, this is what the routine is,’ and he will happily do it.”