With no standout in this year's $500,000 West Virginia Derby, the race provides an opportunity for not only a very good payday but a chance for 3-year-olds to pass an important test that can set the table for the late summer and fall racing season.
One of the Derby entrants in the grade III fixture Aug. 4 at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort is Rugbyman, who had been stabled at Belmont Park in New York for trainer Graham Motion. Rugbyman, owned and bred by Wertheimer and Frere, has raced as far as 1 1/16 miles but never has raced around two turns.
By top North American stallion Tapit, Rugbyman most recently worked at Maryland's Fair Hill Training Center, which is Motion's base of operation. The trainer believes the West Virginia Derby is the right spot for the colt's first attempt at 1 1/8 miles.
Rugbyman in his most recent start July 7 finished an even fourth in the grade III Dwyer Stakes at one mile at Belmont, and before that just missed winning the 1 1/16-mile Easy Goer Stakes at the same track. He broke his maiden by 14 lengths at Belmont three starts back.
“I'm really kicking myself for running back in the Dwyer, but it seemed like a logical spot,” Motion said. “But I think (the West Virginia Derby) is most likely more what this colt wants to do. It's a very competitive race—I was of two minds on whether to put him on the van—but I think he warrants a shot.”
Motion noted the grade II Jim Dandy Stakes and grade I Haskell Invitational last weekend had standout horses, but the Derby has four or five of what he called solid runners.
“It's not a grade I, but it is possible some of them will end up running in a grade I later,” Motion said. “There are some up-and-comers in there. We'll see what happens.”
Morning-line favorite Once On Whiskey is another in that category. Trained by Bob Baffert, the Bodemeister colt won the grade III, $150,000 Los Alamitos Derby at 1 1/8 miles in only his fourth start for owners Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. Baffert's assistant, Jimmy Barnes, who is at Mountaineer, agreed the Derby appears to be competitive.
The Baffert team has combined to win the West Virginia Derby three times with horses that raced either on the lead or just off the lead.
“Looking at the field, he fits with this group,” Barnes said. “It's a little different than the others we have run here because he's not a typical speed horse. But we've been coming here (for the Derby) for a while now and know the race.”
Barnes this year was part of the successful Triple Crown campaign of Justify, who recently retired undefeated after a six-race career that began in January. The California-based colt arrived at WinStar Farm in Kentucky Aug. 1. Justify will stay at WinStar until a decision is made on where he will stand stud next year.
“We flew him to Lexington,” Barnes said. “He went his way and I went mine—to Mountaineer.”
Trainer Brad Cox entered Shortleaf Stable's High North in the Derby, and the Midnight Lute colt is the 4-1 third choice on the morning line. Cox by far will be the busiest trainer at Mountaineer Saturday as he has seven horses entered, including a pair in the grade III, $200,000 West Virginia Governor's Stakes for 3-year-olds and up. The only one of seven stakes in which a Cox horse won't compete—before scratches—is the $75,000 West Virginia Legislature Chairman's Cup at 4 ½ furlongs.
Cox entered Calumet Farm's Term of Art and Steve Landers Racing's Leofric in the 1 1/16-mile Governor's Stakes, which has a grade designation for the first time. Both appear to have an excellent chance given their recent form.
Term of Art, a 4-year-old colt by Tiznow, was based in California last year and had a couple of on-the-board finishes in major races for 3-year-olds. He made his 2018 debut—and first in the Cox barn—July 14 in an allowance race at Ellis Park in Kentucky and was a sharp winner of the one-mile event in fast time. He's 10-1 on the morning line in a nine-horse field in which Stephan Smoot and trainer Wesley Hawley's Hawaakom, who won the Governor's Stakes two years ago, is the 5-2 early choice.
Leofric, a 5-year-old Candy Ride horse, has won five of 10 starts including his last race, an allowance test at Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino in Iowa on the same night High North won the $250,000 Iowa Derby. Leofric, at 6-1, finished second to Hawaakom in the grade III Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas in February.
The Governor's Stakes is slated as race seven with a post time of 4:55 p.m. The Derby is the eighth race with a 5:35 p.m. post time, and the nine-race program kicks off at 2 p.m.
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