Bill Keeler


Bill Keeler – Hardly Mainstream

There’s not too much that’s conventional about Roxburgh breeder and former stud master Bill Keeler. But that’s the way he likes it.

He’s a no fuss sort of guy who seldom goes to the higher end stallions, preferring to choose sires that he feels match his mares, and are within his budget. And this has proved to be a winning formula for the former Southlander.

Keeler, who has been breeding horses for thirty plus years comes from a family which had no interest in horses, but that all changed when he was at high school.

“I got interested at school. We used to sit in alphabetical order. On one side of me was Ross Malcolm and the other side was John Muirhead. John ended up being a stipe and Ross’s father backed horses like Manaroa back in the day. Murray Todd was around too and his father Ian had a horse called Old Salt. We went to the gallops and the trots,” he said.

So it wasn’t long before Keeler got the racing bug. His first winner was a galloper called Royal Caddon which was trained at Gore by Steve Allen.

As he became more interested he gravitated to standardbreds and began to help out at the Hedgehope stable of Maurice and Val Skinner.

“I was dairy farming at the time and used to fit in an hour here and an hour there. I drove Benrodden out there. One thing lead to another. I had horses at the Skinners and around at the Barrons” (Ron and Tony Barron).

Benrodden by Armbro Hurricane won two races for Skinner before winning a further seven for Graeme Hale.

But Keeler’s lucky break came in the mid-1980s.

“One day I picked up two mares and a horse called Skipper Dale. He was three and had been broken in. He used to lie down and my job was to get him to jog around the roads without lying down, which I did after six weeks. Ken Baron got him and he qualified him but it took a long time.”

Skipper Dale went on to win 18 races for owner John Howard and trainer Patrick O’Reilly.

“Anyway, the mares I had were Ngahere and her sister Chatter Box. I sent them both to Vance Hanover. The deal was that I got one of the foals and the syndicate that owned Vance Hanover got the other. I had the choice of foals out of Lumber Dream mare Ngahere which had left Skipper Dale or the one out of Parlez Vous mare Chatter Box. Everyone in the world would have taken the foal out of the Lumber Dream mare. But I chose the other one (Vance Hanover – Chatter Box) which was Cath Hanover.”

Incidentally the Vance Hanover – Ngahere colt named Kiwi Bomber won three races in New Zealand for Graeme Anderson before winning another two in Australia.

So that’s how Bill Keeler started his marvellous association with a mare that gave him plenty of enjoyment and left him a host of winners.

As a racehorse Cath Hanover had one start from Jack Stroud’s stable but broke a pedal bone.

“We served her and got a foal out of her (Cordon Hops) then she came back into work after we weaned the foal. She was one week off going to the workouts at Lindsay Woodward’s place and she went amiss again.”

So it was to the breeding barn that Cath Hanover went and what an amazing record she’s left.

At last count of the 15 named foals she left, 10 had qualified and 8 had won a total of 179 races between them.

Her biggest winner was Mister Dale which was by Knight Rainbow. He won a staggering 80 races – eight in New Zealand and the remaining 72 in America. He started an amazing 328 times for a record of 72-55-48 and $217,909 in stakes. His best mile time was 1-53.0.

Erle Dale is the mare’s other big winner – winning 18 races in Australia before chalking up a further 21 in America. He’s still racing.

Other winners include: Cordon Hops (Devil’s Adversary) 15, Bravo Star (Direct Flight) 9, Rocky Beau (Pacific Rocket) 15, Captain Dale (Julius Caesar) 9 and Marshal Dale (Knight Rainbow) 12.

One of the mare’s progeny that didn’t make it to the races was a horse called Rapid Skipper who was by Totally Ruthless.

“I had three horses in the paddock. Bravo Star, Jester Dale and Rapid Skipper. Rapid Skipper was the best by a long long way. He went to the workouts on one set of shoes and won by the length of the straight. We turned him out and he came back in and was going really good. He got a bit of swelling on the knee. He wasn’t lame and there was no mark. The swelling went down and we backed off him for a couple of weeks. He then went to the workouts again and broke down and we had to put him down. He was one that got away. ”

Of all the horses Cath Hanover left Erle Dale was the one Keeler got the biggest return from.

“It’s never enough (laughter). Erle Dale grossed us $210,000. We sold him out of Australia where I owned and raced him.”

Erle Dale was trained by the Fitzpatricks and that’s where Keeler’s racing colour of yellow with green diagonal stripes came from.

“Going around Harold Park they stood out so I thought I’d get something like that. Brad Morris said to me one day ‘are you training for Bart (Bart Cummings)? They’re similar to his colours.”

So as you can see Keeler’s list of winners didn’t come from the top echelon of stallions – quite the opposite.

“Flavour of the day doesn’t do much for me. I bred five by Artsplace and they were all nil. They couldn’t run to save themselves. We’ve bred four or five Klondike Kids that have gone pretty good.”

Cath Hanover’s last visit to a stallion was in 2011 when she was served by American Ideal.

“I thought perhaps I should get a filly because you could breed fillies or colts out of her depending on what you wanted. I thought I’d better have a filly just to finish off her breeding career. Bugger me days it was upside down in her and she died foaling about two weeks early.”

In the early years Keeler ran a dairy farm at Makerewa near Invercargill before selling up and working at the Freezing works.

“There was a butter mountain in Europe. They complain about the prices now – the prices then were zero. They were swapping butter for Lada’s (cars) and everything else. We were paying 30% on our overdraft and the banks were killing us.”

After selling the farm he decided to set up a stud farm – Kaylea Stud also at Makerewa where he initially stood Armbro Raven and Call Back.

Knight Rainbow owned by Trish Dunell was also on the books and he’s still in the care of Keeler at Millers Flat.

“He was at Graeme Lambs and he served a couple of mares. He rang me up one day and said I’ve sold my farm and that that horse is coming to your place so he duly arrived. He does a good job teasing up the mares and once in a blue moon he serves one.”

While in Southland he also served on the Invercargill Harness Racing club’s crash crew with his old mates Lindsay Woodward and Lex Dudfield.

He was also one of the first to do AI in Southland.

“I was one of the first in New Zealand to serve a full commercial book of mares with a horse called Talk Show Lobell who was a total flop. We served a few with Armbro Invasion and got going from there. I got up to 100 (mares) one year.”

Over the years he ran Kaylea Stud he had a good number of breeding triumphs.

“My claim to fame was around two mares Victoria Foyle and Chipaluck. One was seven the other eight and they hadn’t got in foal. One actually ran with a stallion. All the experts in the world have had a look at these mares for the last few seasons. So I got them served and the first time the vets saw them was at 42 days. They were both positive. My first two positives that year.”

Keeler also seemed to be able to produce foals to order.

“I said in the newsletter that most of the foals next year were going to be colts. Jim Dalgety shook his head and said incredible. He said there was an old fella on the coast that did that. Anyway the upshot was that only two people (of the 74) told me they had fillies.”

And when pressed to elaborate he said, “If I tell you I’ll have to kill you.” (laughter).

He’s also bred from another daughter of Chatter Box – Nellie Dale. She didn’t leave a lot of foals but did leave the talented Mach Three gelding Loch Nagar which won six of his twenty starts.

“It was just an absolute fluke that we got a Mach Three. He was very unsound. He just had a massive heart.”

Fast forwarding to today and Keeler is still breeding from two of Cath Hanover’s unraced daughters – Gracie Dale (Make A Deal) and Rhonda Dale (Iam A Fool) as well as Makarewa Jill (CR Commando – Sherree’s Pride) and Al Zahra (Mach Three – Red Chinelle). And he’s still getting plenty of success by breeding to the cheaper stallions.

Gracie Dale has left some well performed horses including Grey Steel (Island Fantasy) which won three races for Mark Shirley before winning another 17 in Australia and Justa Dale (Klondike Kid) which won once here but has won a further 6 races in Australia and has run a mile in 1-52.7.

“For pedigree experts he’s (Greysteel) interesting. He’s reversed sex cross to three great stallions including No Nukes. (Abercrombie and Albatross are the other two). So she’s (Gracie Dale) had two really good ones by nondescript stallions.”

Greysteel is 3×3 reverse sex to No Nukes, 3×4 reverse sex to Abercrombie and 4×4 reverse sex to Albatross.

Another one of Gracie Dales foals also showed potential.

“Armor Dale (Gotta Go Cullect) looked promising. He had a bit of an empty head but he could run a bit. At his first serious workout he ran past Al Raza one day but he broke his back leg.”

Renee Dale a two year old filly by Sir Lincoln out of Rhonda Dale was recently sold by Keeler to Sydney after she qualified at Wyndham.

He’s also breeding from the Dream Away mare Dreamy Romance.

“Her first foal by Julius Caesar won a race but wasn’t much chop. The second foal was Quatro Knight. He’d been in the cart three or four times. Alex McDonald (who bred lots of very good horses) said to me ‘I’ll trade you anything in my paddock for that horse.’ I said ‘what about your partners?’ “Ah stuff them’ he said. ‘I’ll make my own decisions thanks.’I held onto him. He was a beautiful mover and he duly qualified as a two year old but he got crook and he was never the same again.”

Dreamy Romance’s third foal was Rainbow Romance.  Keeler said “At his third start in America he was a half a head and a half a length away going 1-49. He’s a Knight Rainbow. The next foal was My Rona Gold which is by Klondike Kid which has gone quite good. Then she had an American Ideal and it’s the only one that’s no good.”

Keeler has lived in Roxburgh for five and a half years now and he says he loves the warmer climate.

“It does get hot. When it rains you smile and take your clothes off and dance in it.”

On the recreational front he’s part of the group that runs the swimming pool at Millers Flat and he’s still managing 20 to 30 lengths a day. He also plays a bit of squash after playing for the Makarewa Squash Club for years.

When I spoke to Keeler he was recovering from breaking a hamstring which happened when he was shoeing a yearling. He says at one point he was being transported around the district lying flat on the back seat of a car. Some sight!!

So Bill Keeler’s life has been full of interesting twists and turns and even in the time I spent with him there could easily have been a books worth of tales.