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A Champ Seven Years In The Making

Published: January 24, 2020 11:57 am ET

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Mike Keeling and Paula Wellwood are no strangers to the O'Brien Awards, but the story behind 2019 O'Brien Award finalist Dip Me Hanover actually predates some of their most recent Canadian post-season awards success.

This voyage started in 2012 with a trotting yearling by the name of Dancing For Money.

"We partnered with Karen Carroll on her," Keeling told Trot Insider. "She was a nice little Muscles Yankee filly, just a real tiny filly. Karen and Wayne were always looking to get involved with us, so we bought her."

A $35,000 yearling purchase, Dancing For Money (Muscles Yankee - Spice Queen) amassed a 2-2-2 record in her first six starts. Those wins included a leg of the New Jersey Sire Stakes and a $108,050 Kentuckiana division at Hoosier Park. She finished that season with $118,513 in seven outings.

"At two, she came out of the box like a dynamo, and she really had a good go. She didn't come back as a three-year-old the way we would have hoped — she wasn't a real big filly, so that probably held her back the most," reflected Keeling. "She was a compact filly that came to her speed really early at two, and sometimes that's what happens ... the bigger fillies get ahead of them and they come back to be the same as a three-year-old, and that's a difficult thing to deal with. We did well with her, we made money with her, and she was a pleasure to have.

"There's actually a funny side story. There was a guy named Big Mike, and I think he was working for [Jimmy] Takter at the time. When we had her in New Jersey as a two-year-old, she reared up in the cross ties and threw both her front legs over the cross ties, and this Big Mike guy -- he gets his name honestly -- he actually got underneath her and picked her up so they could undo the cross ties. He basically saved her from injury; it was pretty incredible."

Dancing For Money was retired to the broodmare ranks and ended up at Hanover Shoe Farms. Her first foal was a 2017 yearling by Credit Winner. That yearling didn't get his attention but the next one, a Donato Hanover filly, did. That yearling was Dip Me Hanover.

"We always end up looking at and buying the horses we sold the mares to. It's kind of a funny thing that we do that," admitted Keeling. "I didn't even go to that sale. My back was out and I couldn't travel....I knew that Dip Me Hanover was going to come home because she looks so much like her mother. I just had a gut feeling that Paula and Linda [Toscano] were going to get that done. I think we like to look at the other mares we have, and if they remind us of a mare, we're probably going to chase them a little bit."

When the hammer fell on Dip Me Hanover, the price was $52,000. The owners? Toscano's Camelot Stable Inc., Keeling & Wellwood's Dreamville Stable as well as Marty Sternberg's R And I Farms LLC. The filly stayed stateside with Toscano for development.

"Linda had her all along, and that was agreed upon when we bought her and it made the most sense. All we ever told Linda was, 'You have to be careful with her because her mother could get a little fiery.' And being a Donato Hanover filly, you always have to keep that in the back of your mind that you've got to keep them quiet. So Linda kept her at the back of the bus a lot and really brought her along good. She said she was training three trotting fillies and that she was as good as all three. Senorita Rita was one of them, and she was obviously right there with her."

Dip Me Hanover experienced her greatest seasonal success in Canada with the sweep of the 2019 Peaceful Way at Woodbine Mohawk Park, but concluded her season with a solid runner-up score to highly-regarded stablemate Senorita Rita from post 10 in the Kindergarten Final at The Meadowlands.

"Linda kept telling us that this filly was OK, and we kept going, 'OK.' They started her off pretty conservative, and the only real blip on her radar was the elimination for the Doherty. It's one of those races that I think they wish they could have back. They were bringing her to the gate a little too cautiously, and I think she got a little frustrated with the driver taking a little too much hold of her, and she threw her head and made an uncharacteristic break. It was one of those learning experiences for the filly and for us, and I know Linda was pretty devastated because she thought she was coming in good. That's two-year-old trotting fillies. You bounce back, and you know you've got something to work with. Getting her to Canada was key, where she could get onto the big track and get a chance to learn a little bit."

After a fourth-place finish from post 9 in her Champlain division, Dip Me Hanover vanquished her Peaceful Way rivals in consecutive weeks to give Keeling and the connections their highlight of the year.

"Winning [the Peaceful Way] was just outstanding. It's a race we hadn't won, and it's a race at home, and it's a filly that we can take a little pride in. It's always exciting to win big races at home, and we have a great partnership with Linda and Marty. "

Keeling could not speak more highly of the relationship he and Wellwood have with the Hall of Fame trainer and longtime associate Linda Toscano. Building on a professional relationship that goes back to Paula's Hall of Fame father, Bill Wellwood.

"We carried that on and also grew a great friendship. There's a very strong mutual respect there. She understands how we like to operate, and we're pretty low-key. It just works; we work well together. We never fight.

"That's so key for us," Keeling continued. "There has to be kind of a no-drama clause to it. We think we know what we're doing, and if our partners don't think we know what we're doing, then we shouldn't be partners. Everything's on a handshake and mutual respect. If you don't have that, then you're doomed for failure."

Dip Me Hanover is a finalist in the two-year-old trotting filly category along with Ontario Sires Stakes standout (and possible past paddock pal) Wine Rack Hanover. Keeling received the news of the O'Brien Award nomination while in transit to a Green Bay Packers game along with son and co-owner Devin Keeling. In past years, Keeling might have been a bit more in tune with the O'Brien Awards announcement but he admitted that this year's call took him somewhat by surprise.

"I never put much thought into it at all. There's certain times that you think you're going to be on the O'Brien Award list, and certain times where there's probably four or five quality fillies that an argument can be made for. Once we got the call, Paula and I started thinking, 'You know what? She did win the biggest race in Canada and she had a great run up there.' And we are Canadian owners, so that helps a little bit."

Keeling and Wellwood will head back to Canada from their winter training base in North Carolina to celebrate the O'Briens and the best in Canadian harness racing. It's a night that the longtime trainer, despite past heartbreak with 2016 Horse of the Year runner-up Marion Marauder, thoroughly enjoys.

"I think we do a great job with the O'Briens. It's a nice night for people to go out and get celebrated. This industry has a hard time celebrating anymore, so it's a nice opportunity for people to get recognized for excellence."

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