"Oh, not so good, I'm afraid," Keller replied.
The buyer looked at him incredulously. "I'll be darned if you aren't the first breeder I ever heard say that about his own horses," he said. "Why, I'm tempted to buy one!"
One trotting enthusiast who went ahead and did just that was ex-Yankee Whitey Ford, who acquired a Keller-bred colt a couple of years ago even though, as Ford recalls, "Charlie didn't say a thing to try and talk me into it." The colt showed promise but eventually chipped a bone in his foot, and Ford recently sold him. Says Keller: "If somebody buys a horse from me and it doesn't turn out right, I feel bad." Fortunately, savvy horse buyers are impressed more by bloodlines and the breeder's past performance than by any fancy sales pitches, and not even his no-sell approach can obscure the fact that Keller consistently ranks among the top three or four breeders in average per-starter winnings. Much as this might gild his reputation—and, ultimately, his bank account—he typically has to be persuaded by friends to mention the fact in his advertising.
Although he may never approach the $100,000 or more that a Hanover Shoe or Castleton can command for a standard bred yearling—his best price so far is $30,000—Keller is doing well enough in the sales ring. In last November's yearling sales at Harrisburg, Pa. he sold 18 colts and fillies for $147,800, an average of $8,211 a head. Considering that it costs him roughly $3,000 to breed a harness horse and bring it to auction, that performance assured him of the kind of healthy profit for the year that eludes most breeders his size.
The fragile economics of the breeding business are such that a relatively small broodmare owner like Keller might not be showing any profit at all except for the fact that he owns syndicated shares of several stallions, an arrangement that entitles him to free stud services. To buy a top stallion outright would be risky and, for him, prohibitive. To have to pay stud fees for each foal would greatly increase his operating expenses. By contrast, consider the advantages of the $10,000 investment that Keller made for a one-sixth interest in a stallion named Hickory Pride several years ago. To outside breeders, Hickory Pride, a son of Star's Pride, trotting's top sire, stands for $3,500 for each live foal. So far he has sired no fewer than 25 foals out of Keller's broodmares—with no stud fees involved.
The horse that has done the most on the track to put Keller into harness racing's big leagues is Canadian-owned Fresh Yankee, a 7-year-old bay mare who, with the retirement of Nevele Pride, is probably the best trotter currently in training. A daughter of Hickory Pride out of the Keller-owned broodmare Pert Yankee, she is one of the outstanding race mares of all time. With purses to date of $519,428, she ranks second only to thoroughbred Northern Dancer, the Kentucky Derby winner, as the biggest money-winner in Canadian turf history.
It happens that Keller received all of $900 for Fresh Yankee when he sold her as a year-old filly in 1964. One reason was that she was a rather puny yearling, the result of a digestive ailment that had wasted her for several months. Remarkable as it seems in light of her subsequent success, the condition was serious enough at the time that another breeder might have cut his losses by having the filly destroyed. "I spent more than $900 on her in vet bills alone," Keller admits today. "But you daren't give up on a horse until you find out what's there." He nurtured Fresh Yankee to health and she was fast gaining weight at the time of her sale.
His slowness to write off a horse springs from the same cautious yet realistic streak that makes Keller equally slow to go overboard on one. "Charlie's an athlete," says Dr. Thomas Clark, a U.S. government veterinarian in Frederick and longtime friend. "His horses are athletes, too. He knows that things can happen to make a horse suddenly go good or bad, the same as they can with people." In Keller's own case, his baseball career was interrupted by duty in the Maritime Service in World War II and was hampered by a ruptured spinal disk that painfully hobbled him for many years. Considering his present involvement as a breeder, there is some irony in the fact that Keller's two sons, Donald and Charles III—both now married and living in Frederick (as is his daughter, Jean)—had promising baseball careers in the Yankee system cut short by spinal conditions almost identical to that of their father's.
Before his own troubles took their toll, there were few ballplayers any hardier than Charlie Keller. An outstanding athlete at the University of Maryland (he holds a degree in agricultural economics), he hit .334 as a rookie with the Yankees in 1939, then starred in their four-game World Series sweep against Cincinnati. On a memorable play at home, he collided with Reds Catcher Ernie Lombardi, separating Lombardi from the ball and leaving him so dazed that another Yankee followed Keller across the plate. When the familiar cries of "Break up the Yankees" were raised after the Series, a Cincinnati partisan snorted, "Break up the Yankees, hell. Just break up Charlie Keller."
Off the field during those days, Keller always seemed to be reading Zane Grey novels, pulp westerns and what he called "books of the day." Although he was popular both with teammates and fans, his down-home manner, he recalls, "made some people think I still had hay in my hair." His yeoman strength only added to the image, giving rise to such barbs as the one attributed to teammate Lefty Gomez: "Keller wasn't scouted. He was trapped." Then, too, there was that nickname, inspired by the gorilla who ravaged New York in the old movie King Kong, a burden Keller carries uneasily to the present day. Out in public a fan will still occasionally recognize him and ask innocently, "Say, aren't you King Kong?"