Hundreds of miles away from the West Virginia panhandle, my heart still flutters as the first Saturday in August approaches. WV Derby Day! This year, the race has been upgraded to a G-2, and just in time, as the reigning Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird drops by to make a run for the $750,000 Derby purse.
While the Derby, race 8, is getting all of the attention, the undercard features shippers from Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen as well as some longtime local favorites. Here's a brief look at the day:
Race 1 - Mountaineer Juvenile Stakes - $85,000.
6f, dirt. 2yo. (Past performances; pdf)
Seven entries, including Pletcher-trainee Zip in Time. Pittsburghers love the Rooneys, any Rooney, so it's quite possible that final odds on Asmussen's Prince Rooney will be even lower than the ML 7-5.
Race 2 - West Virginia Legislature Chairman's Cup - $85,000.
4-1/2 f, dirt. (Past performances; pdf)
This is the race of the day! EZ Warrior, who ran third to Hard Spun in the 2007 Kings Bishop, ships in take on Charles Town Dash winner Trust or Bust. Speedy Piratesonthelake gets Mike Smith in the irons. The lone female entrant, La Chica Rica won the Hancock County Handicap over this track in May. Lots of good entrants, lots of angles, but here at Turf Luck, we'll be cheering for the Morning Line favorite, our beloved Bernie Blue who scored a 103 speed figure winning the Dale Baird Memorial last out. He's won this one before, here's hoping the 7-year old can do it again.
Race 3 - West Virginia Secretary of State Stakes - $85,000.
6f, dirt. Fillies & Mares. (Past performances; pdf)
Nadeshiko was a surprising second to Lady Chalice in the Saylorville at Prairie Meadows in June, but in this spot, she's the ML favorite.
Race 4 - Mountaineer Juvenile Fillies Stakes - $85,000.
6f, dirt. 2yo fillies. (Past performances; pdf)
Four of the entrants are coming off a winning debut, including For Royalty. With Mike Smith on board again for Todd Pletcher, she looks like a serious contender to ML favorite Bronx City Girl, who ran third in her first stakes attempt, the Prairie Gold Lassie at Prairie Meadows.
Race 5 - West Virginia Senate President's Breeders' Cup Stakes - $110,000.
1 mile 70 yards, turf. Fillies & Mares. (Past performances; pdf)
First turf race of the day, and another opportunity to cheer on a longtime favorite as Beautiful Venue. She won this two years ago, and she's been in the money at Mountaineer 10 of 11 times. Mike Smith rides yet again for Pletcher, this time on Mega. I'm still rooting for Beautiful Venue. (Cat-xacta alert for Madison and Floyd: Lady Cat and Cat Hop.)
Race 6 - The Harvey Arneault Memorial Breeders' Cup Stakes - $110,000.
6f, dirt. (Past performances; pdf)
Graded stakes winner Ravalo returns to the Mountain as a heavy favorite in this spot. Yes, Mike Smith has the mount, though amazingly, Ravalo's trainer is not Todd Pletcher.
Race 7 - The West Virginia Governor's Stakes - $125,000
1-1/16 miles, dirt. (Past performances; pdf)
Shadowbdancing looked simply magnificent in the paddock before the G2 Cornhusker at Prairie Meadows; though he finished a length behind Jonesboro, he filled in a nice little exacta for the Quinella Crew. Somehow, I always thought Dubious Miss was a mare, but no, he's a gelding, a rather speedy one who's been winning with Calvin Borel in the irons. Today, like Mine That Bird, he's ridden by Mike Smith.
Race 8 - The West Virginia Derby (G3) - $750,000.
1-1/8 miles, dirt. (Past performances; pdf)
Only 6 entrants this year: Awesome Rhythm, Big Drama, Mine That Bird, Monty's Best, Soul Warrior, and Sunday Sunrise. (The last two are coupled, leaving just five wagering opportunities.)
Year in and year out, the journalist who seems to offer the best insights into the West Virginia Derby is Bill Mooney, whose articles appear on both the Review (WV) and Mountaineer's website. Mooney's most interesting is this observation:
"On June 7 at Woodbine, Awesome Rhythm drew off to an 8 ½-length victory in the Victoria Park Stakes, which is a 1 1/8-mile race. It was the colt’s third consecutive stakes triumph, with the prior two having been achieved at 1 1/16 miles. In all three races, Awesome Rhythm was never more than four lengths removed from the lead. It is a similar pattern to that of several recent West Virginia Derby winners, Sir Shackleton (2004), Zanjero (2007) and Ready Set (2008)." (Mountaineer site)
Race 9 - The West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker's Cup Stakes - $85,000.
1 mile 70 yards, turf. (Past performances; pdf)
The Morning Line favorite is Blues Street at 7-5. Of course he's trained by Todd Pletcher. Of course, that's Mike Smith holding the reins. With this much Mike Smith, I wouldn't be surprised to see a crew from Animal Planet filming an episode of Jockeys.
If you plan to go:
- Bring sunscreen. It's a long day, there's little shade, and the forecast calls for mostly sunny with highs in the low 80s.
- Eat before you get to the track. While Mountaineer offers some fine dining in its trackside restaurant, and its La Bonne Vie recently received an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, it's been impossible to get a reservation ever since Mine That Bird's appearance was announced. Keep in mind that you likely won't be able to bring in your own cooler. You may call Mountaineer at 1-800-80-40-HOT to
protestinquire about this policy.
- Bring your own chairs. Seating will be at a premium. Even in the best of times, Mountaineer has trouble handling the crowds on Derby Day; this year, I'd expect it to be standing room only. In the past, the outdoor deck seating has been full by noon. (The Derby is slated to be run around 5:40.) The outdoor "grandstand" consists of approximately 50 seats. Most days, Mountaineer regulars carry in their own lawn chairs and settle in on the apron. There are indoor grandstands which are not air-conditioned. Traditionally, the highest indoor level has not filled until after race 1 or 2. While they're a long hike up the stairs, there is one added benefit: the windows on the upper deck offer a view of the paddock.
- Add a half-hour to your ETA for parking. Though there is no fee for parking, the lots will be packed. One year, one non-MTB year, we spent a full 20 minutes being directed to a spot that seemed to be a country mile away from the track. Check with Mountaineer, but usually a shuttle bus runs from the casino to the track every 10 minutes or so. For folks who have difficulty walking distances, this might be an option.
- Enjoy the fine stylings of Mountaineer's announcer, Peter Berry. While Mountaineer does a lot of things wrong, it knows how to hire talent. Berry is the standard by which track announcer's should be measured. He's that good.
- Buy a Derby drink. Mountaineer seems to change its "signature" drink every year, but whether its called a "Blue Derby" or a "Perfecta", you'll pay around $4 for a cool, tasty drink served in a souvenir derby glass. Hmmm....maybe you should buy two. You'll probably need the extra liquid refreshment. And if you happen to find that there's no room in your cupboard for all of your souvenir glasses, there's a homesick librarian in Des Moines who would be glad to take one off your hands.