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CROWNING GLORY : Cars Go Too Fast for Howard B. Keck; He Prefers Horses, Such as Ferdinand

May 15, 1986|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

There is in horse racing today only one breeder with a chance to win the 1986 Triple Crown.

He is Howard B. Keck of Los Angeles, a retired oilman whose hobby for the last half-century has been creating things that go fast.

Animate things or inanimate, four-legged, or four-wheeled, it doesn't much matter. His bag is the engineering.

Three years ago, Keck created the horse that won the Kentucky Derby earlier this month under a 54-year-old rider, Bill Shoemaker.

That is, after many months of study and consideration at Keck's home here and on a farm in Kentucky, he decided to mate Ferdinand's mom and pop. Now owned by Keck's wife Elizabeth, Ferdinand will try for the second jewel in the Triple Crown, the Preakness, Saturday at Baltimore.

Three decades ago, Keck bred a race car that won the Indianapolis 500 in successive years, 1953 and '54.

That is, he made the decisions that took the car off the drawing board and equipped it with the latest in mid-century innovations before he put it into the hands of a driver who was as gifted and competitive as Shoemaker, the late Bill Vukovich.

It was in a car driven by Vukovich that one of the Keck team's most clever innovations was first exhibited. They called it fuel injection.

All things considered, Keck rates as a most unusual speed merchant. He is the only man whose entries have won both the Indy 500 and the Kentucky Derby.

It is a parlay that may never be equaled, although A.J. Foyt, a four-time Indy winner, has a shot at it. His horse, Rare Brick, won seven straight races and was to have entered the Kentucky Derby this year if he had run well in the Arkansas Derby, but he was injured and taken out of training in early April.

Still, Keck hasn't given his unique accomplishment much thought. "I feel fortunate," he said in a recent interview.

Then he dropped the subject.

"I've never kept a scrapbook," he said. "I don't keep many souvenirs, and I can't remember much about (Indy). I got out a long time ago. Of the two, I prefer horse racing to auto racing for one reason. Horses never crash and burn."

As an Indy car owner, Keck never had to worry about scraping up enough cash to keep the operation going. Until the 1980s, he was president and chairman of Superior Oil, which he sold to Mobil two years ago for a tidy $5.7 billion.

A tall, cold, quiet, somewhat rumpled man, Keck, now 72, inherited more than $100 million from his father in the 1960s and ran it into $260 million. He is on Forbes' list of the nation's 400 wealthiest men.

So he sure wasn't squeezed out of auto racing. He just didn't like accidents.

"(Keck) was 9 years old when he saw his first (auto) race," an acquaintance said. "He loved those fast cars. He loved to engineer them--to improve the breed--but then he got to a point of no return. It was kind of ironic--he improved them too much. He couldn't stand to see the wrecks when they got to going so fast."

So, in a manner of speaking, Keck traded his car for a horse.

That was in the mid-1950s, when he said goodby to the Torrance plant where he had built cars and hello to a Kentucky farm, where he began to breed thoroughbreds.

"I had cars at Indianapolis for six years," Keck recalled. "I got out the last year I won. I didn't even go back to see the race."

In an era before rear engines, wings and sidepods, Vukovich in 1954 became the first Indianapolis driver to average a breathtaking 130 m.p.h.

"I didn't want any more of that," Keck said. "There was an obvious potential for disaster, and I didn't want to be responsible. Soon afterward, they killed 80 people in one accident at LeMans.

"Personally, the worst for me was that the year after I got out, Vukovich was killed at Indianapolis. I haven't been to a race since Vukovich died."

Nor does he watch horse races, these days, as a rule. He said he has been to the Kentucky Derby only four times in 30 years. He is never seen at Hollywood Park, and rarely at Santa Anita.

The spectacle of the contest grips him not at all.

At Churchill Downs this month, he placed no bets on Ferdinand, who paid $37.40. On the afternoon of the biggest handle in turf history, a $13-million afternoon, Keck didn't contribute a dime.

"I never bet," he said.

In the old days, Keck maintained a similar detachment from auto racing.

Former business friends remember that he was on a golf course a thousand miles from Indianapolis the day his car first qualified for an Indy race.

A breathless young employee found him on a green and said, enthusiastically: "We just got the word, Mr. Keck. You qualified."

Keck's smile was brief and not very warm. "Thank you," he replied. Then, turning to another golfer, he said, "You're away."

Warm has never been the word for Howard Keck. A formidably private man, he seems at all times to be elusive, reserved, reticent, almost reclusive. In the year or so it took him to dispose of Superior Oil in 1984, no financial reporter could find him. To this day, most sportswriters don't like to interview him. He is estranged from some of his family.

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