10/08/2013 12:25PM

Dick Jerardi: West Virginia Breeders Classics rises from humble beginnings

Coady Photography
Lucy's Bob Boy (above) could be rematched with two-time West Virginia Breeders Classic winner Russell Road in this year's $500,000 race on Oct. 19.

It is part of racing lore that Jim McKay, on his way home from the first Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park, wondered why they could not try something similar in Maryland. It was two years later after attending the Maryland Million in 1986 at Laurel, that Sam Huff and Carol Holden wondered why they could not take that idea and move it to West Virginia. So, they did.

On Oct. 19, they will run the 27th West Virginia Classics Day at Charles Town, with $1.2 million in purses for nine races, culminating with the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders Classic.

“That we’d be talking 27 years later, no,” Holden said when asked if they imagined this. “It was all we could do to get the first year done.”

That was 1987.

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There was support in West Virginia for the idea, but there also was politics to consider. Then West Virginia Gov. Arch Moore very much liked the idea, but Holden remembered “that the problem we had was that the West Virginia school teachers were threatening to go on strike, so they didn’t want to announce that we were having these races even though it was racing’s own money. The original purses came from un-cashed parimutuel” tickets.

So they waited until exactly three months before the races to make the announcement that the races were going to happen in September.

Once the politicians came aboard, it was up to Huff, the legendary NFL linebacker with New York and Washington and a favorite son of his native West Virginia and a former football star at West Virginia University, to sell it quickly. And he did.

Holden, who had been around horses her whole life, was the administrator of the West Virginia Thoroughbred Development Fund at the time. Huff was really falling hard for the sport himself.

Huff is now the CEO and chairman of the board of the Classics. Holden is the president.

Together, they do a weekly online radio show from Virginia. They have a farm in Middleburg.

There is a sign on one side of the driveway that says Huff Farm. On the other side, it is Sporting Life Stable. They each race a few horses under their own names.

And they spend much of their time on the year-round job of running the West Virginia Classics.

“Knowing that the racing wasn’t the only thing that would bring people out, Sam put a little sizzle to it,” Holden said. “We had skydivers over the years. We actually had the WVU band there one year and tried to dress it up a little bit so it wasn’t just another night of racing.”

There have been some really good horses win the Classic, including Grade 1 winner A Huevo, three-time winner Confucius Say, two-time winner Russell Road, and the amazing West Virginia-bred Lucy’s Bob Boy.

“The one I always think about is the first winner, Onion Juice,” Holden said. “He was a crowd favorite there at Charles Town. We always remember the crowd screaming and the grandstand shaking with people hollering and jumping up and down saying ‘Come on Juice.’ ”

There have been more than $20 million in purses distributed in the Classics. Holden is hoping the 2013 Classic will feature a rematch of last year’s race between winner Lucy’s Bob Boy and Russell Road, two of the best ever to run at Charles Town.

Ness off to a great start at Laurel

Now that Maryland racing’s purse structure has been solidified, the program is starting to get more interest. Trainer Jamie Ness, who dominated the Delaware Park standings in 2013, just moved into a house in Maryland. According to Ness, Midwest Thoroughbred owner Richard Papiese “decided he wanted to concentrate our operation here. He is also thinking of breeding horses in the state.”

Thirteen of Ness’s first 19 starters at the Laurel Park meeting finished first or second.

◗ David Cora, runaway leader in the Penn National jockeys’ race with 131 winners and $2.5 million in earnings, should, at his present pace, get win No. 2,000 early in 2014. After the first week of October, Ramon Preciado (62), Phil Aristone (60), and Pat Farro (60) were all very much alive for the 2013 trainers’ title at the track.