Lexington, KY — Robert J. Key, one of the Standardbred sport’s most influential breeders, most notably through his horse American Winner, died Jan. 27, 2021, in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Key bred American Winner in partnership with the late John Glesmann and the colt won the 1993 Hambletonian. As a sire, American Winner leaves a legacy through his daughter Yankee Blondie, the dam of Muscle Hill.
American Winner was a son of Super Bowl and the Speedy Somolli mare B J’s Pleasure. Mr. Key and Mr. Glesmann purchased B J’s Pleasure as a yearling from breeder Lana Lobell Farms. The following year Lana Lobell sold her half brother, Mack Lobell.
B J’s Pleasure was a success on the track, showing speed and earning $244,023, but her broodmare career eclipsed her racing exploits. She immediately produced, with her first foal the $827,238 winner Super Pleasure; then came BJ’s Mac, a winner of $376,210. American Winner was her third foal.
In 1993, Mr. Key had two strong contenders in the Hambletonian: American Winner and Hi Noon Star, although Pine Chip was favored on race day. American Winner and Hi Noon Star each won their elimination heats and then American Winner, driven by Ron Pierce, captured the final. The colt’s victory also put his trainer, Milton Smith, an African American, in the spotlight.
In a 2010 interview, Mr. Key said of winning the Hambo, “That day was the greatest day of our lives,” referring to himself and his wife, Patty.
Mr. Key first became involved in harness racing in 1983. He was a practicing attorney and did personal injury work and a meeting with a doctor included the doctor talking about his harness horses. When Mr. Key heard that you could buy a yearling colt who raced and then stood at stud, breeding more than 100 mares for thousands of dollars for each service, Mr. Key said he did the math and thought, “Hey, this could be my retirement!”
That fall he bought an interest in four yearling fillies. The next year he bought half of a filly named Amneris, who cost just $19,000. She set world records, won the Breeders Crown 2-year-old Filly Pace, and concluded her career with earnings of $974,141.
“I was hooked!” said Mr. Key in the 2010 interview.
Before her passing in 2016, B J’s Pleasure had produced 20 foals, the winners of $3,378,905. While B J’s Pleasure was acquired as a yearling purchase, she was the impetus for Mr. Key to become a breeder. After boarding a few broodmares, he decided to buy a farm and his Winning Key Farm in western Pennsylvania has been the home to as many as 300-plus mares.
“Billy Haughton told me a couple of things. Number one, breeding and racing horses is a numbers game. Number two, it’s breeding, breeding, breeding,” said Mr. Key of his operation.
For the past five years Mr. Key’s horses have routinely earned more than $3.4 million, ranking him among the top 15 money-winning breeders and ahead of many commercial breeders.
During the past decade, Mr. Key’s horses have won many stakes races, in part a testament to Mr. Key’s philosophy on staking many of his horses to many, many stakes: “You have to be in it to win it,” he often said.
His more recent stakes winners have included world champion Break The Bank K 3,1:51.1 ($1,104,630), a 12-race winner who captured the Breeders Crown 3-year-old Colt Trot and finished third in the Kentucky Futurity final and Canadian Trotting Classic; Twilight Bonfire, runner-up to Captaintreacherous in the 2013 North America Cup final; Win Missy B 3,1;52 ($1,599,436), winner of the Peaceful Way and Goldsmith Maid at age two and at three the Kentucky Filly Futurity, and second in the Hambletonian Oaks and Breeders Crown; and in 2017-2018, Looking For Zelda 3,1:54 ($439,234), a 100 percent Robert J. Key production as a daughter of Break The Bank K-My Winning Way K. She won the International Stallion Stakes at Lexington at age two and the Buckette at three, in addition to numerous Ohio Sires Stakes.
In addition to breeding and racing Standardbreds, Mr. Key founded and served as president of Key Bellevilles Inc. in Leechburg, Pa. Established in 1967, Key Bellevilles Inc. stretches over 200 acres and operates an 88,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility, specializing in the design, manufacture, and worldwide distribution of high quality belleville disc springs.
Mr. Key was a graduate of the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pa., and worked as a practicing attorney before devoting his time entirely to the Key Bellevilles operation.
Mr. Key also held a pilot’s license and in interviews shared that he often flew his trainer, Billy Haughton, to the racetrack or to look at yearlings.
“Not many have been involved with greater dedication, or with as much success,” said Rob Key of his father’s legacy in harness racing. “I don’t think many realize the impact he has had through racing, breeding and supporting the sport, sometimes quietly but strongly.”
Rob Key said there are presently about 80 mares at Winning Key Farm and many horses in training and Winning Key Farm will continue.
Information about additional survivors and arrangements will be added when available.