Let’s get this out of the way first – Jim Key, trainer Kathy Neilson’s entrant in Saturday’s second race at Shawan Downs – can’t spell, count, tell time or recognize flags of different countries. And doesn’t know who the president is.
The other Jim Key could do all that and more as a performer at the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis among other stops. Better known by his stage name, Beautiful Jim Key, the wonder horse was foaled in 1889 in Shelbyvile, Tenn. His dam was an Arabian, Lauretta Queen of Horses. His sire, Tennessee Volunteer, was a sought-after trotting stallion by Hambletonian. Jim Key never raced, but learned plenty from his owner Dr. William Key, a former slave, self-trained veterinarian and the purveyor of Keystone Liniment.
While on the road selling the medicine and at his farm in Tennessee, Key taught his horse to read, spell and count. A favorite trick involved fetching a silver dollar from the bottom of a barrel of water without drinking a drop. President William McKinley saw Jim Key in 1897.
“(Beautiful Jim Key) is certainly the most astonishing and entertaining exhibition I have ever witnessed,” McKinley said. “It is indeed a grand object lesson of what kindness and patience will accomplish.”
Neilson and owner Irv Naylor have been plenty patient with the other Jim Key, an Irish-bred son of Shantou and the Daggers Drawn mare Queeny’s Princess. Agent Hamish Macauley $284,311 (£215,000) to buy the new 5-year-old for Naylor at the Goffs November point-to-point sale last year. He was the second-highest price in the sale behind French-bred Jonbon now in the yard of English trainer Nicky Henderson.
A bay gelding, Jim Key made two American point-to-point starts this spring – a flat win at Cheshire and a third over hurdles at Loudoun – and eyes a proper hurdle debut this fall. He’s one of nine in the second race at Shawan Downs Saturday, though Neilson may choose another venue.
“The first time we took him out he won and beat some pretty useful flat horses and then he ran well over hurdles at Loudoun too,” said the trainer. “Those were pretty good races. I’m not sure what the ground is going to be like at Shawan and I don’t want to run him on uneven ground. I might wait. We’ll see. He’s really athletic, a good jumper and a fun horse to be around.”
He has some work to do to catch up to the other Jim Key, however. Fellow trainer Joe Davies sent Neilson a copy of the book this spring , so she’s well aware of the story.
“He’s a pretty smart cookie, but I don’t think he’s quite up to spelling yet,” Neilson said. “He is smart in some ways because his favorite move is to buck people off. He knows how to get rid of his rider and run home and he goes right to his stall. He knows where he lives and where the feed tub is.”
Though fairly quiet through the summer, with one win in eight starts at Colonial Downs and Saratoga, Neilson sits fifth in the National Steeplechase Association trainers’ standings with seven wins (two less than leader Keri Brion and one behind Jack Fisher, Leslie Young and Neil Morris) while teaming up with daughter and jockey Skyler McKenna.
“I’m having a pretty good year,” Neilson said. “Skyler loves it, and it’s pretty inspiring when you have her. She wants to do well and inspires me to focus on my horses and make sure they’re in top shape for her and try to pick spots where she can win.”
Jim Key’s opportunity will come, but the spelling will have to wait.
In the early 1900s, his famous namesake drew praise from the New York Times, Sun and Herald newspapers, the Boston Globe and publications around the country.
New York promoter Albert Rogers heard the tales and tried to buy the horse, but Key refused. Instead, Rogers joined the team and helped make Jim Key a star – with an entourage including a stray dog named Monk and two grooms. Jim Key was the top attraction at the 1904 World’s Fair, performed in music halls and theaters, dazzled President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice by spelling her name (and adding the last name of her future husband, congressman Nicholas Longworth). The horse traveled in private train cars, drank purified water and ate special hay. Rogers created endorsement deals for saddles and harnesses, even a line of office equipment.
The subject of a book written by Mim Eichler Rivas and published in 2005, Jim Key retired from show business after the 1906 season. His owner died three years later, at age 76, with Jim Key passing away in 192. He’s buried in Shelbyville, Tenn., and you can visit his grave.