Rapidly developing Western Pride, winner of an $11,000 allowance race at Thistledown in early July, shot to the front at the start in Saturday night's West Virginia Derby at the Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort and stormed home to land the $300,000 first prize in the richest race in the history of the state.
Western Pride, owned by Theresa McArthur and trained by Richard Estvanko, won the $500,000, 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds in track-record time of 1:47.20. It was the third track record of the evening at Mountaineer, which set an all-time handle record of $1,601,383 for its nine-race program. The purse distribution of $888,850 was a record for West Virginia and the highest of any track in the country for the day, officials said. Attendance was 18,529.
Western Pride, by Way West-Strongerthanpride, by Proud Birdie, had finished second in the grade III Round Table Stakes at Arlington Park in his previous start. The colt, a $65,000 purchase as a 2-year-old, had displayed improved speed since a late-winter respite, and he used it to his advantage in the Derby under local rider Dana Whitney.
Western Pride broke on top from the nine hole in the nine-horse field and set honest fractions of :23.46, :46.49, and 1:11.04. His seven-length lead had diminished to two lengths on the far turn, but he opened up again by three lengths in the stretch and won by 2 ½ lengths in the end. Saratoga Games chased him all the way and held for second, a half-length ahead of favored Thunder Blitz.
The winner, dismissed at 21-1, returned $45.60 to win.
"It's the greatest feeling to win a race like this at home," said Whitney, who regularly tops the standings at Mountaineer. "They let him get away with an easy lead, but some of the other jockeys don't know this track. I had an advantage."
It was the biggest win ever for Estvanko, who is based in Ohio and just last year began shipping horses to Mountaineer. Western Pride had won an allowance event at the West Virginia track in February.
"It's unbelievable," Estvanko said. "Speed had been holding all week, and I was just hoping he didn't get pressed too hard. He got a nice easy lead and was able to control the pace."
Estvanko said the removal of blinkers three starts back isn't necessarily the reason the colt has improved so much, but it has kept Western Pride more focused in his races. The grade II Ohio Derby at Thistledown in September is on Estvanko's wish list for Western Pride.
McArthur, a co-owner of top sprinter Caller One, said Western Pride missed some time due to sickness but returned a better horse. Her husband, Rolf Obrecht, said the colt's improved form in July led them to believe he was better than his earlier races suggested.
"I told Theresa two months ago that the West Virginia Derby was our long-term goal," Obrecht said. "She told me, 'You're out of your mind,'"
"That was until his last two races," McArthur said. "Then I really thought we had a chance."
The evening featured appearances by Joe Orseno, trainer of Thunder Blitz, D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Buckle Down Ben, and jockeys Jerry Bailey, Pat Day, and Gary Stevens. In the third race, Fina Dur broke his own track record for 4 ½ furlongs when he won the $55,000 West Virginia Legislature Chairman's Cup in :50 1/5. Hustler lowered the six-furlong track standard by a tick when he won the $55,000 Harvey Arneault Memorial Handicap in 1:07 4/5.