By Don Landry for WoodbineEntertainment.com
TORONTO, May 19 - Make no mistake about it. Mike Keogh's life passion has been, and remains, horse racing. The longtime Woodbine-based trainer is sinking himself into things again, doggedly pursuing that passion as this racing season begins to build steam.
However, there's room in Keogh's heart for another burning desire and it's one that continues to glow brightly for the sixty-year-old, tethered as it is to a day in 1966, when he was growing up in Epsom, England, deciding to play hooky from school with a pal.
On that day, a love for West Ham United Football Club was born, as nine-year-old Keogh hopped a train for a midweek game at the legendary Upton Park, until recently, the home of the Hammers.
“The game had already kicked off when we came out of the train station, so you could hear the crowd," says Keogh, recalling the moment with clarity. "The noise was unbelievable.”
The experience remains vivid and captivating for Keogh, and fifty-one years later, he keeps tabs on his beloved West Ham, even though - as he lightheartedly puts it - “We’re kinda like the Maple Leafs. We suck a lot of the time.”
It's been a frustrating soccer season for Keogh and his likeminded mates. The Hammers, who play their final game of the Premier League season this Sunday against Burnley, are mired in the middle of the table, standing twelfth with a record of eleven wins, nine draws and seventeen losses.
“It’s been up and down turmoil," Keogh moans, pointing out that his team is struggling to make the massive London Stadium - the focal point of the 2012 Olympic Games - a comfortable home.
"Number one," he says, we moved from our old, beloved ground.”
Keogh sporting the old school Hammers gear... (Chris Young Photo)
That old, beloved ground and the team that called it theirs for more than a century, secured Keogh's heart on that day back in 1966, the day he and his mate from school ditched classes.
Keogh had a memorable afternoon, the likes of which most sports fans can appreciate. Think of the first time you walked into your favourite team's stadium. The memory is probably as evocative as Keogh's is of his first trip to see West Ham live, with all the sights and smells and excitement swirling. Most of us never forget our initial glimpse of the home team's field, the wonder we felt the moment we popped out through the tunnel from the concourse to see that glorious green for the first time.
"When we got there, there was such a crowd there that they’d closed the turnstiles," remembers Keogh. "Everybody starts to walk away. Next thing you know, someone shouts ‘They’ve opened the gates!’ Anyway, we got in.”
Got in, sure. But there was absolutely nowhere to stand or sit in the jam-packed stadium, which was hosting an FA Cup game. That's when the adults in the crowd did Keogh and his pal a big favour; one that had them practically hanging from the rafters.
“The older guys there, they lifted us kids up into the girders of the roof section so we could see the game," says Keogh.
That's where they sat, balancing on one of the trusses that secured the roof over the stands. A touch nerve-wracking, yes.
“It was a little shaky, I can tell you that, when West Ham scored,” Keogh recounts, laughing. "That was brilliant. That was my first experience there.”
A few months later, Keogh's native country won the World Cup, powered by a trio of West Ham stars in the final, and that cemented his love for the team that he carries with him to this day.
“When we won the World Cup in 1966, Bobby Moore was the captain of England and West Ham," says Keogh. "Geoff Hurst scored the hat trick and Martin Peters scored the other. We beat West Germany, 4-2. They were all West Ham players so I still make the statement that West Ham won the World Cup, really.”
Keogh keeps a watchful eye over his busy Woodbine stable... (Chris Young Photo)
Brought up in a family where his father, Norm, was a respected horseman - and living in a town where the world famous Epsom Derby is annually contested - it was natural that Keogh would gravitate towards the ponies and that his childhood hero would be the great Lester Piggott, the jockey who won nine times at The Derby and almost 4,500 career races in total.
Aspiring to be a jockey himself, Keogh grew up adoring Piggott. However, there was room reserved for the aforementioned Moore as well, a legendary football player for whom Keogh had massive respect and another reason for his closely knit emotional ties to West Ham.
“He was brilliant," says Keogh of Moore. "Full of class, full of class. The way he conducted himself on and off the pitch. A great ambassador for football. A great player, too. He played with his heart. He chased after everything.”
When West Ham closes out the season on Sunday, Keogh will have to record the match and watch it later. His busy schedule at Woodbine takes up much of his time when those weekend games are on. He doesn't mind. He likes to sit in his living room and renew bonds with his team that way, though he does watch from a pub with friends on some occasions.
Live or recorded, either way, it's a far sight better than the days when he'd have to wait for word on how the Hammers had done. Arriving in Canada in 1977, Keogh was often left out in the cold when it came to overseas soccer coverage.
"You’d get the results, like, two days later in the paper but that was it," he remembers. "There was no coverage at all. So it was hard to keep up with.”
Things have changed, dramatically, since 1977. Keogh has gone on to an esteemed career as a trainer, winning more than 300 races including a Triple Crown sweep with Wando in 2003, and he’s optimistic about the chances of his colt Megagray in this year’s Plate. Even better, perhaps, West Ham's games can be had by watching live on television or over the internet. Even if this particular season has made that no bargain, Keogh is adamant, his loyalty is stamped as though in the steel of the girder he sat on to watch the Hammers play that afternoon back in 1966.
"I’m a die hard," he says. "I’ll never change.”
If you enjoyed this story, re-visit the first 'Getting To Know' piece below: