It was indeed big drama in the $750,000 West Virginia Derby (gr. II) (VIDEO) at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort on Aug. 1, but if the odds board was any indication, it was an unexpected result.
In the final eighth of a mile, Big Drama was in front on a diminishing lead. Mine That Bird was in the midst of a sustained rally in which he made up more than 10 lengths. But it was Soul Warrior who split those two to register a shocking win at 23-1.
Owned by Zayat Stables and trained by Steve Asmussen, Soul Warrior gave jockey Dale Beckner the biggest victory of his career. Beckner replaced Miguel Mena, who reportedly had travel difficulties and failed to make any of his mounts on the program.
“They called me around the sixth race and said I’d be picking up the horse,” said Beckner, one of the leading riders at Presque Isle Downs & Casino in neighboring Pennsylvania. “It’s the biggest pickup mount I’ve ever had.”
Soul Warrior, a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred colt by Lion Heart, secured the third spot in a six-horse field from the rail in the 1 1/8-mile race. He tracked front-running Big Drama, who had a 10-length lead at the half-mile mark, from the inside, with Monty’s Best to his outside.
Soul Warrior dropped back to fourth when Mine That Bird made his move from last, and in the lane, it appeared Mine That Bird had dead aim on Big Drama. He flattened out a tad, however, and Soul Warrior surged late between horses to get up by a neck.
Big Drama was a game second, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Mine That Bird. The time on a fast track was 1:51.46 after fractions of :23.73 for the opening quarter-mile, :46.56 for the half-mile, 1:10.45 for six furlongs, and 1:37.13 for a mile. The tempo slowed considerably in the lane, with the final eighth of a mile in more than 14 seconds.
“I was concerned with how far (Big Drama) was in front, but I don’t think the track was that speed-favoring,” Asmussen’s assistant, Darren Fleming, said after the race. “(Soul Warrior) has been maturing through the year, and he ran a great race in Iowa. I guess this was just his time.”
Soul Warrior finished second behind Duke of Mischief in the Iowa Derby in his previous start. In June, he got his second win in an allowance test at Churchill Downs.
Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr., who watched the Derby from the clubhouse apron, said right after the race he was concerned about how the track was playing, but more concerned about Mine That Bird’s trip.
“My horse needed to stay covered up on the backside,” Woolley said. “The same thing happened in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). (The strategy) had worked well in the (Kentucky) Derby and Preakness Stakes (gr. I)—keeping him behind and covered up. Until we do that, we’re going to have problems.
“To win, he still has to run his race.”
Mine That Bird moved outside of horses on the backstretch like he did in the Belmont. In the West Virginia Derby, he made up considerable ground under urging, but didn’t have the kick in the final sixteenth of a mile.
Jockey Mike Smith was happy with Mine That Bird’s run, but not his ride.
“It was just total rider error,” Smith said. “I don’t like the way I rode him at all. The track was playing really fast. I thought I had to give myself a chance going down the backside when I saw how far in front the other horse was. I knew I wasn’t going to get a spectacular win, but I thought I could pull it off. He just needs that one short run, and I used too much of him on the backside.”
Woolley, who questioned the allowance conditions of the Derby that gave Soul Warrior and Big Drama 11-pound weight breaks (Big Drama’s jockey, Eibar Coa, ended up riding at 115 pounds), said he and owners Mark Allen and Dr. Leonard Blach would regroup and point toward the Shadwell Travers (gr. I) in four weeks.
“He was kind of climbing early; maybe he was too fresh,” Woolley said of Mine That Bird. “It was a big effort, but he showed he needs to be kept under wraps (until making his move).”
David Fawkes, who trains Big Drama for owner Harold Queen, said his colt was rank early, and once bothered, took hold of the bit. “I’m disappointed he didn’t win, but he ran a great race,” Fawkes said.
Big Drama will be pointed to the grade I King’s Bishop Stakes at seven furlongs. Fleming said it would be up to Asmussen to decide Soul Warrior’s next race.
The presence of Mine That Bird drew a larger-than-normal crowd to Mountaineer for the 40th Derby. The grandstand and apron were packed, and lines were long at concession stands and betting windows. As the afternoon wore on and the crowd grew, the number of shutouts increased.
Vehicles were parked on the grassy hill along the entry drive along the backstretch, and patrons walked around the far and clubhouse turns to get to the grandstand. For the first time in recent memory, parking was at a premium.
Mountaineer announced attendance of 21,218, a record for the West Virginia Derby. Total handle for the nine-race card was an all-time record of $3,600,116. On-track handle was $355,265.