Next time you’re in St. Thomas De Conac in the South of France and want a fine meal and maybe a bottle of delicate wine, stop by the Bar Brasserie. While awaiting your exquisitely prepared meal, you might enjoy looking at some of the racing paraphernalia, photographs and such, that adorn the walls. It won’t take you long to recognize in those winners’ photos that the names of the horses vary but that the rider is the same in each.
If it so happens you’re a Canterbury Park or Turf Paradise patron, it won’t take you long to recognize the jockey whose countenance is part of each picture.
Yes, racing fans and French food connoisseurs, that is indeed Lori Keith, who in the last couple of years has become a rider to be reckoned with at the two aforementioned tracks.
It so happens she is also the daughter of Bill and Philomena Keith, who have been the proprietors of the aforesaid bistro for the last dozen years, transplants from Surrey County, England, where Lori spent her formative years and, yes, there were frequent trips to nearby Epsom Downs.
The small racing museum in the restaurant is one way for the Keiths to stay close to the daughter who relocated to the United States a decade ago. There is one another way, too, that the family stays in contact.
“I talk to my dad every night,” Lori said Sunday, seated on a desk in the silks room adjacent to the jockeys quarters at Canterbury.
Bill Keith, whose father owned racehorses, is an avid racing fan, an avid sports fan. It is another matter with Philomena.
“My mother wishes I would pick a (momentary pause) less dangerous job,” Keith said. “She wonders why I don’t become a trainer instead. I tell her that you still have to be around horses, still have to gallop them. She gets very nervous when I ride.”
Keith participated in show jumping as a youngster and at 18 schooled horses from the barns that featured steeple chase and flat-race horses.
Given the opportunity, Keith has demonstrated that she can be the woman for the job. A connection to a friend in England who knew the trainer Neil Drysdale in Southern Californa led to a job galloping in the early 2000s.
Keith galloped for Drysdale for 2 ½ years before her first chance to ride, aboard a horse named Hillary Circus Boy at Hollywood Park. “Should have won but he finished third,” she recalled.
Her first winner was a horse named Sandy Neck after she moved her tack to Turf Paradise in Phoenix in 2006. She gave Los Alamitos a try too but her first real meet came during the 2006-2007 season in Phoenix.
Then she gave Arlington a try in Chicago followed by a tour of the East, at
Delaware, Penn National, Monmouth, Saratoga. “I wasn’t doing well out East,” she said, “so I went back to Phoenix.”
She came of age, so to speak, at Canterbury Park in 2011 with 32 wins, good for fourth place in the riding standings. She followed up last winter with 48 wins at Turf Paradise.
“I started getting opportunities, horses with more than just a heartbeat, and proved I could do the job,” she said. “Mike Biehler threw a bone my way every once in a while, but Vic (Hanson) was my real savior. He’s put me on the map so to speak. If someone gives me the opportunity, I’ll get the job done. He gave me the chance.”
A lot of ground was broken by other women in racing before Keith’s arrival, and she says that things have improved for female riders, although on occasion she will hear a derisive comment.
“The boys will get a little pissy once in a while,” she said. “They’ll say the only reason she got that horse was because of the way she looks.”
There is an added factor this year in Shakopee – several new faces, a larger riding colony. “There are a lot of jockeys here this year. The most since I’ve been here,” she said. “I don’t even know some of their names. If I know their names, I might not recognize them by face.”
There were similar circumstances in Phoenix last winter, where 45 jockeys, the most in recent years, packed the riders’ quarters.
The larger colony in Shakopee is having an impact in the early days of the meet. New names lead the standings. For her part, Keith has two wins, three seconds and three thirds from 22 starts.
Regardless of what happens this summer, she has a trip planned at the end of the meet. She will visit, for the first time, a certain restaurant in the South of France.
It is surely fortuitous that the bistro is located where it is. Anything nearer might spell disaster for an individual whose livelihood depends on making weight.
Keith gave a knowing nod when it was mentioned that French food and wine in any closer proximity might be hazardous to her chosen profession.
This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.
Photo Credit: Coady Photography