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Mathea Kelley

West Virginia Derby Sets Up as 'Riders' Race'

West Virginia Derby hopefuls got their gallops in on a sloppy surface July 31.

Several 3-year-olds entered in the Aug. 1 West Virginia Derby (gr. II) galloped around a sloppy surface at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort the morning before a race no trainer is willing to say is easy to handicap.

The Derby starters had the track to themselves for about a half-hour July 31 on a surface drenched by overnight rain. The surface was expected to dry out later that afternoon and evening; sunshine with highs in the low 80s are predicted.

The West Virginia Derby is featured on the this week's That Handicapping Show.

“So far, so good,” said Bennie “Chip” Woolley Jr., trainer of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner Mine That Bird, who galloped July 31. “They’ve done everything they can do to accommodate us. Everyone has been very cordial. It’s a great place to be—it’s like being on vacation.”

Woolley had the Mountaineer race penciled in after Mine That Bird (by Birdstone ) finished third in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). Still, owners Double Eagle Ranch and Buena Suerte Equine were contacted by Monmouth Park officials about the gelding starting in the Aug. 2 Haskell Invitational (gr. I).

“They pressed us to come (to New Jersey),” Woolley said, “but we had made up our mind. This wasn’t a decision we made last week.”

Woolley said there has been a little “second-guessing” Derby week because the Mountaineer track “has been so fast.” He said Big Drama could be tough to catch if past performances are any indication.

“He may get a chance to steal an easy lead,” Woolley said. “This race is going to be a test to say the least. There’s not a horse in the race that has the speed to put pressure on Big Drama.”

David Fawkes, who trains Big Drama for owner Harold Queen, said he likes his spot going into the West Virginia Derby. But anything can happen.

“My horse is doing really well,” Fawkes said after Big Drama (by Montbrook) galloped. “There are six horses in there? It’s going to be a riders’ race. Things always change when they leave the starting gate.”

As for Mine That Bird, the probable favorite, Fawkes said: “You can’t take anything away from that horse at all.”

Mike Smith, who rode Mine That Brid when he finished second in the BlackBerry Preakness Stakes (gr. I), is named to ride in the seven races before the Derby, so he'll get a feel for the Mountaineer surface.

Fawkes said the Haskell was under consideration for Big Drama until it was announced Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra was going in the race. “If she hadn’t shown up, we might be at Monmouth Park,” he said.

John Ross, who trains Woodbine shipper Awesome Rhythm for Domenic Triumbari, said a lack of opportunities in Canada led to the trip to West Virginia. Awesome Rhythm (by Toccet) is a three-time stakes winner this year on Polytrack at Woodbine.

“There wasn’t too much (for the horse) at Woodbine,” Ross said. “It was an easy decision. Other than not being on Polytrack, the race made sense.”

The imposing-looking Awesome Rhythm, who finished ahead of Mine That Bird in a 2008 maiden race at Woodbine, trained well on dirt at Payson Park in Florida this past winter, Ross said. His only dirt race was at seven furlongs, and the top finishers were Theregoesjojo and Quality Road .

“We hooked a nice, tidy field for that amount of money,” Ross said of the West Virginia Derby and its $750,000 purse. “The horse has a heart of gold; he’s a sensible horse and he ships well.”

James McAleney, who rode Awesome Rhythm to his three stakes wins, is named to ride in the Derby. Eibar Coa, who rode Big Drama three times (he finished first in three stakes but was disqualified in the grade II Swale) is named to ride again.

As of the morning of July 31, it appeared only Big Drama would gallop the morning of the race, but that could change. The Steve Asmussen-trained entry of Soul Warrior and Sunday Sunrise, and the Reade Baker-trained Monty's Best, round out the field.

The West Virginia Derby, eighth race on a nine-race program, has a post time of 5:43 p.m. EDT. It will be televised live on FOX Sports Net from 5-6 p.m.