CHARLES TOWN – Thoroughbred racing in West Virginia is not just a business, it’s a culture.
From reports of our first president George Washington staging races on what is now main street, Jefferson County has long been home to this avocation, argued for its survival and embraced those who depend on it for their livelihoods.
But it took a native son, NFL great Sam Huff, to lay the cornerstone for an idea that has gained national prominence and reserved a place for names like Funkhouser, Casey, Woodson, Hilton and McKee to join him on the Mount Rushmore of racing in the Mountain State.
On Saturday night, there’s one destination, a small corner of the Eastern Panhandle, where every owner, trainer, jockey and breeder will glance skyward for divine intervention and ask for a little bit of good, old-fashioned luck.
Nine races are carded, for what has been coined the Super Bowl, World Series and Daytona 500 of West Virginia thoroughbred horse racing.
Expect a tasty assortment of racing options, distances to tempt the speed conscience (4 ½ furlongs), middle distances (6½ & 7 furlongs), for the steady going and the ultimate challenge for horse and rider, the 1 1/8 mile Breeders Classic.
This obviously is a proud moment for West Virginia, not only to showcase the equine talent that resides within its borders, but to ensure that horsemen, who have invested mightily in their dream, potentially can reap a return on that investment.
However, the horses that compete on the biggest stage of the year at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races don’t just magically materialize.
It takes preparation, time, fate, heartache, patience, talent and money.
Farms like O’Sullivan, Taylor Mountain, Beau Ridge, Coleswood and many smaller dedicated entities supply the horse power that drives our beloved industry.
In West Virginia, horse racing’s roots are as old as the limestone pastures that our four-legged creatures graze on.
If you are fortunate enough to attend the races here are a few helpful hints.
Post time is 7 p.m. If you’ve secured a reservation in the dining room, a comfortable seat, superb view and ample food await your arrival.
A must-purchase is the racing bible, otherwise referred to as the program. It contains information on horses, post positions, jockeys, owners, trainers and past performances.
When watching the races, I fold mine and liken it to a whip, while others more sensible save it as a souvenir.
The time between races can be drawn out, so it is advisable to tune in to our fountain of information, announcer Paul Espinosa Jr. The local kid is a master behind the microphone and his race analysis is spot-on.
A must, weather permitting, is to take a trip to the paddock, also known as the saddling enclosure. The action here can be fast and furious. Horses for each individual race are fitted with their tack, jockeys are mounted and led out to meet their pony escort for the post parade.
It may look simple, but every move is orchestrated and every person knows the task at hand.
The bugle standard “call to the post” rings loud and clear, notifying all in attendance that we are minutes away from the spirited competition.
So much about the West Virginia Breeders Classics, from saddle towels to corporate signage to men’s ties all embossed with the state colors of blue and gold, is a tribute to a native son of Farmington, a West Virginian with a vision.
Robert Lee “Sam” Huff, born Oct. 4, 1934, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982. He played college football at West Virginia University, winning a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame.
After his playing days, Redskins fans should remember the team of Sonny, Sam and Frank on Redskins Radio Network.
Huff is CEO and chairman of the West Virginia Breeders Classics and alongside his partner Carol Holden has developed a program that has benefited horsemen, advanced the sport of thoroughbred racing and raised monies for countless charities within the state.
At the end of the day however, it will be horses and their special accomplishments that will bask in the spotlight.
Luminaries from the past like Onion Juice, Coin Collector, Confucius Say, A Huevo, Russell Road and Lucy’s Bob Boy will be forced to step aside for Saturday night’s latest virtuosos.
Horses that will try and serve notice of their current elevated status come from the barns of Jeff Runco, Javier Contreras and Tim Grams.
They will be competing in the fruitful Cavada for fillies and mares and the bankable Breeders Classic – $300,000 – for the boys.
The battle for female supremacy will take place between the reigning 2017, Charles Town Races “Horse of the Year’ Moonlit Song and the brash upstart Late Night Pow Wow, recent winner of the Grade III Charles Town Oaks.
Handicappers are salivating over this monumental matchup.
Both are daughters of the fabulous sire Fiber Sonde and both resemble ATM machines for their respective barns.
The duel preserves the age-old conflict between maturity and youthful energy.
On the boys side of the ledger, the hoped-for struggle over the first-place prize in the Classic could rival last year’s electrifying three-horse photo finish.
Trainer Tim Grams played his cards close to the vest and when nominations were disclosed many were thunderstruck to find his horse, Runnin’toluvya in the West Virginia Breeders Classic.
Tim’s extreme patience has paid handsome dividends for this son of Fiber Sonde.
Back-to-back Equibase speed numbers over 100 place him in elite company and signal his readiness. On form, his main rival appears to be the ultra-consistent North Atlantic.
Owned and bred by Jeff and Susan Runco, this son of Ghostzapper has the pedigree, connections and desire to emulate the couples 2016 Classic winner, Slip the Cable.
Here’s wishing all of our racing friends, acquaintances and co-workers a safe and prosperous journey on West Virginia Breeders Classics XXXII.
Remember, in life you must take chances when you are on the dream-seeking path. To break barriers takes courage. This week brings your golden opportunity. Carpe diem!
– Jeff Gilleas is a jockey agent and a contributing writer for the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Magazine. He’s spent years in the thoroughbred industry promoting his favorite sport