Kentucky Oaks winner Keeper Hill dies at age 20

Keeper Hill, winner of the 1998 Kentucky Oaks and heroine of the Grade I Spinster at Keeneland the following season, died on Nov. 20 at Mill Ridge Farm, the operation announced Tuesday. The daughter of Deputy Minister was 20.

Headley Bell of Mill Ridge said Keeper Hill passed away quietly due to natural causes and was buried on the farm. It was a peaceful end for a mare who took Alice Chandler’s operation on a thrill of a ride throughout her 21 career starts on the track.

While Mill Ridge rarely races horses itself, the decision to buy out a client at the 1997 Keeneland 2-year-olds in training sale and hold onto Keeper Hill proved a wonderful stroke of fate. After breaking her maiden fourth time out at Santa Anita Park in January 1998, Keeper Hill established herself among the top sophomore fillies when she won the Grade I Las Virgenes in February.

Two starts later, Keeper Hill notched her defining victory when she defeated Banshee Breeze by a neck to win the Kentucky Oaks. She would not finish off the board for the rest of the year and capped her 3-year-old campaign with a third-place effort behind Escena in the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

“You know we don’t race very many, in fact we race very few,” Bell said. “So it was just an exception that we race her. For her to be as exceptional as she was, was just truly a gift. And we treated it like that from the very beginning. We got very lucky to race her.

“She’s been with us for 20 years and it’s been quite a life.”

Bred by Chadds Ford Stable et al, and campaigned by Alice Chandler, Dr. John Chandler, Shug McGaughey and Audrey Otto, Keeper Hill would go on to capture another Grade I victory practically in her backyard when she won the 1999 Spinster Stakes at Keeneland by 2  1/2 lengths over old rival Banshee Breeze. After initially being trained by McGaughey, she was conditioned by Bobby Frankel for the remainder of her career and retired with four wins from 21 starts and $1,661,281 in earnings.

As a broodmare, Keeper Hill produced graded stakes winner Keep Up, a son of Unbridled’s Song who currently stands stud at Mill Ridge. Her 2015 foal by Point of Entry died but she has an unnamed yearling colt by Candy Ride.

“You can only imagine as a breeder being able to win the Kentucky Oaks but to also win the Spinster, for our family, it was really great,” Bell said. “We buried her here at the office, she actually paid for this office. And it’s only fitting that she’s with (the late Mill Ridge stallions) Gone West, Diesis and Johar.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl