NEW?CUMBERLAND - The race that has matured into the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby is being run for the 44th time on Saturday. It anchors a program comprised entirely of unrestricted stakes, for purses totaling $1.65 million.
No other North American track - not even Saratoga or Del Mar - will match Saturday's distribution at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort. For this one day each year, Mountaineer is "The Show."
It is also the day that annually provides a fortification block to a sporting heritage that dates back well over two centuries. For it was in 1786 when Colonel Charles Washington (the brother of George) came up with the idea of staging a racing event in the newly-named village of Charles Town.
"To be run over the course near this place on Tuesday, the ninth of May next," the public notices stated, "agreeable to the rules of the Frederick (Maryland) Jockey Club, for a purse of 40 pounds."
From that beginning, West Virginia has a thoroughbred racing history that now spans 227 years. And with every year another horse, jockey and trainer (and sometimes multiple combinations within each group) contribute to new West Virginia Derby chapters.
Various chapters have different components. Many decades from now, turf historians will speculate what it was like to be at Mountaineer the evening in 2002 when Wiseman's Ferry registered immensely fast fractions in the West Virginia Derby. An opening quarter of :22..94. An opening half in :45.69. An opening three-quarters in 1:09.61.
A thoroughbred rarely is able to go that swiftly early on, and then hold the lead and win a 1 1/8-mile stakes. But Wiseman's Ferry, under jockey Jorge Chavez, did so by a neck in a time of 1:49.63.
The victory was the crowning achievement of the three-year racing career of Wiseman's Ferry, and boosted his prospects of becoming a sire. Following his retirement from competition, Wiseman's Ferry performed stud duty in New York and Kentucky, and is now based at Dana Point Farm in Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania.
Wise Dan, a son of Wiseman's Ferry, won the Eclipse Award for 2012 as North America's Horse of the Year - an honor he may receive again at the culmination of this year, as he is undefeated to date in 2013.
Historians may also ponder about what it was like to be at Mountaineer on August 9, 2003, when stakes and track records were set in both the West Virginia Derby and West Virginia Governor's Stakes.
Soto, trained by Michael Dickinson and ridden by Ramon Dominguez, won the nine-furlong Derby in a time of 1:46.29. Be Like Mike, trained by Niall O'Callaghan (who had also conditioned Wiseman's Ferry) and ridden by Chavez, won the 1 1/16-mile Governor's in a time of 1:41.15.
These clocking not only remain Mountaineer standards they are the fastest ever achieved for those distances at any West Virginia track. Soto surrendered the lead to a horse named Dynever in mid-stretch, then rallied to win by a neck. Be Like Mike Set a fairly soft pace and cruised wire-to-wire, prevailing by 1 lengths.
Some interesting West Virginia Derby may loom before us in 2013 as well. Should Overanalyze be victorious, he will be the first Grade 1 winner to Mountaineer and achieve that feat. Will he be successful?
Hal's Hope, the Florida Derby winner, could not do it in 2000 . He finished second. Dominican, the Blue Grass Stakes winner, could not come close to doing it in 2007. He finished sixth.
Mine That Bird, the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner, could not do it in 2009. He finished third. And Hansen, the previous year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, could not do it in 2012. He finished a fading fourth.
Trainer Steve Asmussen looks to add to his already existing record this year with a fifth West Virginia Derby victory. He's giving it a try with Betweenhereandcool. Departing tries to become the first winner of the Grade 3 Illinois Derby to add a West Virginia Derby triumph to his resume. Trainer Al Stall Jr. believes he can.