Field is strongest in state’s history

NEW CUMBERLAND, W.Va. – Organized horse racing in West Virginia dates back more than two centuries, to the days when Charles Washington (brother of George) staged meets in the roadways that led to what became Charles Town. Saturday’s card for the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby is the finest ever assembled in the history of this state.

The above statement is not an exercise in hype or spin it is fully supported by the historic record. Personnel from any racing office at any racetrack can testify how demanding it is to fill a stakes card. But on occasion a rare one everything comes together. And that’s the case for Saturday’s nine-race card, comprised entirely of stakes, at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort.

A trio of Grade 2 winners, Candy Boy, Tapiture and Vicar’s in Trouble, will go to the post in the West Virginia Derby. All three have proven ability. But will luck be a lady? And if so, upon who will she cast her smile?

When Jerry Bailey got beat in a photo aboard The Judge Sez Who by the victorious Wiseman Ferry in 2001, his post-race comment was, “At the top of the stretch, I got blocked by some ‘friggin’ other horse.” (Bailey didn’t actually say “friggin,” his language was more colorful, but we’ll leave it at that.)

The field for the $200,000 Governor’s Stakes includes Moonshine Mullin, A Grade 1 winner on a five-race win streak; Mylute, who finished a close third in the 2013 Preakness Stakes; and the Grade 3 winners Carve and Falling Sky. The Governor’s Stakes is not a graded event, but will deserve serious consideration to gain that status after this renewal.

Free World is multiple stakes winner on the grass, whose recent efforts include wire-to-wire victories at Indiana Downs and Arlington Park. He’s come to Mountaineer for Saturday’s $100,000 West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker’s Cup. His opponents in the race include Regally Ready, winner of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. This is the first time any winner of a Breeders’ Cup turf race has run at a West Virginia track.

There’s the chance that a rising star will rocket higher. The morning line favorite in the $100,000 Mountaineer Juvenile Fillies is A. P.’s Glory, a daughter of the 2003 Horse of the Year, Mineshaft, and a granddaughter of the 1992 Horse of the Year A. P. Indy. In her career debut at Arlington Park, A. P.’s Glory won by 7 lengths and recorded a Beyer speed figure of 92. She’s be ridden Saturday by Corey Nakatani.

Rosie Napravnik, Jesus Lopez Castanon, Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Brian Joseph Hernandez Jr., three-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel, and Nakatani all have multiple mounts on Saturday’s card.

But stakes are not always won by jockeys of national renown. Consider what happened in the 2001 West Virginia Derby. The locally-based rider Dana Whitney guided Western Pride to a front-running score, in the then track-record time of 1:47 1/5.

Whitney, who led the Mountaineer jockey standings for several years, hasn’t been seen much in these parts in recent times. But on Saturday he has the mount on Brennan in the Juvenile Fillies. Her line is 6-1. Western Pride went off at 21-1.

Regardless of what horses ship in, and who comes in from afar to ride them, it’s unwise to dismiss a local jockey and/or his mount on West Virginia Derby Day. Local riders know the nuances of the Mountaineer racing surfaces.

They know when and where to guide a horse to the inside or outside; when the rail is fast and when it isn’t; and how the nuances of the surfaces may change, sometimes midway through a race card. The dismissal of any horse that Christian Pilares or Deshawn Parker rides on Saturday (they each have seven mounts, the same as Napravnik and Nakatani) is done at one’s own peril.

Back in 1942, a special exhibition was staged in Yankee Stadium in New York, with the retired Hall of Famers Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson brought back a final to face each other. John Kieran, a sports columnist for the New York Times got pretty excited about the event and told his readers, “Hurry, hurry good people. Don’t miss this!”

The same can be said regarding Saturday’s West Virginia Derby card.