By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"This horse won by four and a half with the jockey easing him," Keen says. "[Valhol] is looking back over his shoulder for the other horses. The horses chasing him ran out of air trying to run with him...There's no doubt in my mind that we won it. He was sharp, perfect, going in. He was the best. Bottom line."
Keen once fired Patin after he disobeyed the trainer's instructions during a race in California. Keen told Patin not to bother coming back to his barn. A year and a half later, when Patin's brother-in-law was working for Keen, he decided to put the jock back on his payroll.
Patin rode small-stakes races in Louisiana and Texas for years. Valhol was his shot at something big. Now, Keen says, the incident in Arkansas appears to be a "career-ending move." He can't help but remark how almost tragic it is: Patin quit school at a young age, and his younger brother was killed in the New Orleans projects. Patin also came back from a career-threatening injury. (Patin could not be reached for comment.)
"After the race [in Arkansas], he was so excited," Keen says. "He asked Jackson if he could have the lei they put around the horse's neck, and he took it to Louisiana and put it on his brother's grave."
Listening to Dallas Keen talk about Billy Patin's hard life -- forgetting that Patin was once suspended from racing for a year after he tested positive for drugs, forgetting that he fired the guy for disobeying his orders, and forgetting the ESPN tape -- it's easy to marvel at how even-tempered Keen is toward Patin. You'd think he'd be at least a little angry with him. But Keen truly believes him innocent, at least until Arkansas racing officials prove otherwise.
Some might say that's because there is still a possibility that blame may be laid at the trainer's feet. A trainer's job is to know everything about his horses, and if Patin was training Valhol to respond to a buzzer, it's easy to think Keen knew about it.
Keen, of course, insists he would never do anything to hurt his sport.
Keen grew up with horses and follows in the footsteps of a well-known veteran jockey and trainer -- his father, Corky Keen. Dallas Keen was the lead trainer at Lone Star Park during its first two thoroughbred meets in 1997 and 1998. He has trained horses since 1986 and worked with Jackson since 1994. Both men are well respected in the horse-racing business.
James Jackson owns a 754 acre thoroughbred ranch in Rockdale in Central Texas called Valhalla Farms. When he purchased Valhol in a private deal for $30,000, he wanted to name the horse after his farm, but that name had already been taken. So he chose the Norwegian spelling of Valhalla, Valhol.
"In Norse mythology, when a Viking fought bravely and died with sword in hand, he was allowed to go to Valhalla to be with their god," Jackson explains.
If Valhol gave the two men a taste of heaven, a jockey named Billy Patin may well have brought them hell.
Jackson still wants his purse money. He is waiting to hear from the 7th Division of the Arkansas Circuit Court in Pulaski County, where his attorneys have filed a petition for review of the Arkansas Racing Commission's decision to allow Oaklawn to withhold the purse money.
Keen, who is considering filing his own lawsuit, says that he will never race at Oaklawn Park again.
Byron Freeland, an attorney representing the Arkansas Racing Commission, says he doesn't think either man has much of a chance in court.
"The horse was disqualified because there was a rule violation. A disqualification by definition means you lose the purse, the trophy, the everything," he says.
"If the horse is disqualified -- for whatever reason -- you don't receive the prize. Their argument is that I didn't do anything therefore I should receive the prize."
Whatever the outcome in court, Keen and Jackson say they have been encouraged by the major trainers and jockeys who have supported them.
Keen says several people have told him that he "got a raw deal," and letters of support have poured in. One little girl from Wyoming wrote: "I don't care what they say. Valhol won that race by himself. I think Valhol is the greatest horse since Secretariat. I hope you and Mr. Jackson don't mind, but I've started a fan club."
Things like that keep Keen going -- that and his desire to be like his father. "I figure if I can be half the horseman he is, then I can be great," Keen says.
Keen says he's not worried about proving his horse. Both Keen and Jackson agree that Valhol is the best thoroughbred either of them has ever raced.
"I think he's gonna be a better 4-year-old than he is a 3-year-old just because that's the way he's bred. His dad was a late bloomer himself," Jackson says.
"I wish that I would've picked another race to prove my colt," says Keen. "I wish I never would've gone to the Arkansas Derby."