08/06/2002 11:00PM

Day's richest race? It's in Chester!


If you think the richest race in North America this weekend will be run at Saratoga or Del Mar, think again. Saturday's West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Race Track tops all stakes with its $600,000 purse.

Mountaineer, which rests on the banks of the Ohio River in the sleepy town of Chester, W. Va., is offering a record purse for the 30th running of the West Virginia Derby. Two years ago, the West Virginia Derby's purse was half of what it is today.

On Wednesday, nine 3-year-old colts and geldings were entered in the 1 1/8-mile West Virginia Derby, including the likely favorite, Grade 3 Lone Star Derby winner Wiseman's Ferry. Other stakes winners in the field are Calkins Road, Cappuchino, and Captain Squire. Among the jockeys with mounts in the race are Hall of Fame riders Jerry Bailey (The Judge Sez Who) and Pat Day (Pass Rush).

Post positions for the West Virginia Derby, which carries allowance conditions, were to be drawn Thursday.

Joining the West Virginia Derby on the card are six open stakes, each worth $85,000-added, and a pair of $45,000 allowance races. Total purse money distributed will exceed $1.2 million.

The West Virginia Derby is the final race on the card, which gets under way at 7 p.m., and has a scheduled post of 10 p.m. A replay of the race will be shown Sunday at 1 a.m. EDT on ESPN2's Today at the Races.

The North American Graded Stakes Committee accorded the West Virginia Derby Grade 3 status this year, making it the only race in the state to carry a grade.

Rose Mary Williams, the director of racing at Mountaineer, said the impact of the grading was reflected in the improved quality of the nominations this year.

"It's a real big deal," Williams said. "This adds prestige to the West Virginia Derby, and I think every year the quality of the field will continue to improve."

Purses at Mountaineer have grown by leaps and bounds in the last several years, thanks to the passage of legislation in 1994 allowing slot machines. A casino, which is situated on the track's property, houses 3,000 slot machines. Mountaineer is also home to a 4,000-seat concert arena, a hotel, and a spa and fitness center.

The casino revenue is what makes the purses so healthy at this year-round track, where the daily average purse distribution is $160,000, compared with $22,000 in pre-slot days. Williams said purses are on the receiving end of 15.5 percent of the net of the slot revenue.