After Western Pride earned his third career victory in an $11,000 allowance event at Thistledown in early July, his connections figured he was at least back to his old self. A subsequent victory in a $50,580 allowance race at Arlington Park two weeks later indicated he was even
better. But when the 3-year-old colt finished second in the Round Table Stakes (gr. III) at Arlington in late July, they asked the question: Just how good is he? Owner Theresa McArthur and trainer Richard Estvanko got the answer Aug. 11. Western Pride sped to the front at the start and never relinquished the lead on his way to a track-record victory in the $500,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort. His time of 1:47.20 for the 1 1/8 miles eclipsed the previous record set by Park Guard in the 1974 Derby. "I told Theresa two months ago that our long-term goal is the West Virginia Derby," Rolf Obrecht, McArthur's husband, said after the victory. "She said to me, 'You're out of your mind.' " "Until his last two races," McArthur said. "That's when I started to think we really had a chance." The couple, who live near Cincinnati, traveled to Mountaineer on a chartered plane piloted by friend and horseman James R. Chapman. Another charter flight, from New York, carried some big names to West Virginia, including trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockeys Jerry Bailey, Pat Day, and Gary Stevens. Mountaineer, its purse account fattened by revenue from slot machines, has found that money does indeed talk. The winner's share of the purse was $300,000. The nine-horse field for the 29th Derby included Stronach Stable's Thunder Blitz, fourth in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and sixth in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I); Outofthebox, second in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. I) and Florida Derby (gr. I); Laurel Futurity (gr. III) winner Buckle Down Ben; and Federico Tesio Stakes winner Marciano. The race, though, belonged to Western Pride and local rider Dana Whitney, who won the biggest race of his career. Whitney hustled Western Pride from post nine, and the colt had an easy three-length lead after an opening quarter in :23.46 over the fast track. After a half in a quick :46.49, the lead was seven lengths. Saratoga Games, ridden by Mario Pino, and Thunder Blitz, with Stevens, narrowed the margin to two lengths after six furlongs in 1:11.04. Western Pride, dismissed at 21-1, still had something left. He opened the lead back up to three lengths, and won by 2 1/2 lengths. Saratoga Games, another improving colt who had won his previous three starts in Maryland, finished second, a half-length ahead of favored Thunder Blitz. The rest never threatened. "To win this race at my home is great," said Whitney, who regularly tops the standings at Mountaineer. "I think they let me get away too easy on the lead, but the other jockeys don't know this track. I had an advantage." Bailey, who rode seventh-place finisher Outofthebox, said his colt had no excuse. Stevens said Thunder Blitz, who made a bid on the far turn, had a rough trip along with some others that were bunched down the backstretch. Day, who piloted Buckle Down Ben to a fifth-place finish, said he just couldn't get the horse to run. Ohio-based Estvanko, who also won the biggest race of his career, said Western Pride returned well from a freshening, and the removal of blinkers appeared to allow the colt to focus in his races. Estvanko, who began shipping some horses to Mountaineer last year, also took notice of how the track had played. "Speed had been holding all week," the trainer said. "I just hoped he wouldn't get pressed too hard--that he could get a nice, easy lead, and control the race." Western Pride, a Florida-bred by Way West out of the Proud Birdie mare Strongerthanpride, was a $65,000 purchase at the 2000 March Ocala Breeders' Sales Co.'s 2-year-olds in training sale. Chapman, who advises McArthur, a co-owner of top sprinter Caller One, said he liked the colt, and believes Western Pride may be even better on the turf. Attendance for the West Virginia Derby program was reported at 18,529. Total handle of $1,601,383 for the nine-race card was the highest ever for Mountaineer, and the $888,850 purse distribution for the card was a record for West Virginia, and the highest of any track in the country that day, officials said.