He was fourteen years of age when his family emigrated to the United States in 1852. Wanting to expand his business opportunities, in 1876 he relocated to the heart of the country"s financial center in New York City. While living there, he became interested in horse racing and began investing heavily in a stable of Thoroughbred race horses.
However, in 1884 huge losses in the Chicago grain market cost him everything he owned, leaving him with nothing but heavy debts.
He began a remarkable comeback a few years later after being hired by Wall Street investor William Havemeyer to manage a stock fund. Such were his talents at market manipulation that he was soon engaged by J. P. Morgan and William Rockefeller to manage funds for them and Keene emerged once again as a wealthy and powerful force in the New York financial community.
By 1891 James R. Keene was back to investing in race horses and his Castleton Farm near Lexington, Kentucky became one of the most important breeding operations in the history of American horse racing. In the early 1890s, Keene bought over forty English mares and shipped them to Castleton for breeding.
In 1908, London Sportsman magazine wrote that Keene possessed, "the greatest lot of race horses ever owned by one manitoba"
James R. Keene bred National Museum of and Hall of Famer Kingston and owned Domino, as well as breeding and owning future Hall of Famer inductees Colin, Peter Pan, Commando, Maskette, and Sysonby.
He died on January 3, 1913 of an acute stomach ailment at Mission Alston"s House for Private Patients in Manhattan. He was interred in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx. He was vice-Chairman of The Jockey Club at the time of his passing.
Sara Keene died in 1916 and is interred in Woodlawn Cemetery next to her husband.
Biographer Alden Hatch collaborated with Foxhall Keene to write James R. Keene"s biography titled Full Tilt that was published in 1938 by Derrydale Press. 1894: Assignee
Belmont Stakes winners
1907: Peter Pan