Published in the Aug. 17 issue of The Blood-Horse
In the days leading up to the Aug. 10 West Virginia Derby (gr. III), it was widely believed the speedy Wiseman's Ferry would gun to the front and never look back. In the paddock before the $600,000 race at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort, trainer Niall O'Callaghan and jockey Jorge Chavez plotted a different strategy. On paper, the richest race in West Virginia history had the potential for a serious speed duel. "Contrary to what everyone thought, he wouldn't necessarily be going to the lead," O'Callaghan said. "Jorge said that after the break, he would just let the horse be comfortable." As it turned out, the eight other 3-year-olds in the Derby weren't eager to mix it up early. That left Wiseman's Ferry on the lead a few jumps after the start and, despite a serious challenge in late stretch, he held on to win by a neck for owners Morton Fink, Lee Sacks, and Don and Dana Myers' Swifty Farm. Wiseman's Ferry, the 8-5 favorite, raced unchallenged through early splits of :22.94, :45.69, and a demanding six furlongs in 1:09.63 over a fast track that had been surprisingly kind to closers on the undercard. Captain Squire and Cappuchino were in close pursuit. Wiseman's Ferry held a 1 1/2-length lead in midstretch, then just held off the fast-closing The Judge Sez Who to win in 1:49.63 for the 1 1/8 miles. The Judge Sez Who, with Jerry Bailey aboard, was eighth early, but moved into third position on the final turn. He had the momentum, but Chavez wisely kept Wiseman's Ferry in the four or five path in the lane on a night when the inside was dull. "That was the difference between winning and losing," said Larry Smallwood, general manager of Swifty Farm in Indiana who was on hand for the race. "It's also a great compliment to Niall to get this horse to run his best every time." The Judge Sez Who, only 1 1/2 lengths behind Wiseman's Ferry in the July 20 Ohio Derby (gr. II), finished second, a length in front of Captain Squire. It was another 7 1/4 lengths back to the rest of the field. Wiseman's Ferry, a son of Hennessy out of the Silver Deputy mare Emmaus, was purchased privately after a 2-year-old campaign on the grass in Great Britain and Ireland. In six starts this year on the dirt, Wiseman's Ferry has three wins at 1 1/16 miles or 1 1/8 miles. His only clunker came in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes (gr. I). His résumé includes wins in the Lone Star Derby (gr. III), and a close second-place finish behind Magic Weisner in the Ohio Derby. His earnings now stand at $784,818. Under the allowance conditions of the West Virginia Derby, Wiseman's Ferry was the 122-pound highweight. He spotted his competition from three to 11 pounds. Given that fact, Don Myers, who watched the race on television from Indiana, was impressed. "We're certainly looking forward to his next start," Myers said. "I thought it was a great race." Wiseman's Ferry could compete next in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. III) at Philadelphia Park Sept. 2 or the Super Derby (gr. II) at Louisiana Downs Sept. 21. He could even race in both considering he seems to do well with just three weeks between races. The West Virginia Derby victory topped a big night for O'Callaghan. Less than an hour before the Derby, he found out via cell phone that he had won the $100,000 Prairie Meadows Handicap in Iowa with Woodmoon, a colt he had scratched from the $85,000 West Virginia Governor's Handicap on the Derby undercard. "Every now and then you need to catch a break," O'Callaghan said with a laugh. Mountaineer set a few records with this year's Derby, the first graded stakes in West Virginia history. The total purse outlay of $1,222,850 for the nine-race card was a record high, as was total handle, which topped $2.23 million. Attendance of 18,300 was reported at the sprawling complex where most of the slot machines are housed in an entertainment complex adjacent to the racetrack. Though not a record, the grandstand appeared much more crowded than last year, when attendance was reported at 18,529. On the undercard, trainer Tim Ritchey and jockey Jeremy Rose teamed to win two stakes: the $85,000 West Virginia Secretary of State Handicap with Urban Dancer (owned by Ritchey), and the $85,000 West Virginia Governor's Handicap with Docent (owned by Arlene Daney).