08/05/2010 1:03PM

Exhi tries to prove he's just as good on dirt in West Virginia Derby


All things being equal, Exhi might deserve to be favored Saturday in the 41st running of the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Racetrack in Chester, W.Va. After all, he has won his last four races, all stakes, for trainer Todd Pletcher.

However, it’s difficult not to notice that the streak came entirely on synthetic surfaces. But Pletcher maintains that before and after the latest win, the June 27 Victoria Park at Woodbine, Exhi trained exceptionally on the dirt surfaces of Saratoga.

“He’s been training very well on dirt,” Pletcher said this week from Saratoga.

So the handicapping question that horseplayers must resolve for themselves is whether Exhi is primarily a synthetics specialist, or whether the colt simply has improved in remarkable fashion since this spring and will be able to make an effective return to dirt racing Saturday.

Exhi, bred and owned by the Wertheimer brothers, is the 7-2 second choice on the Mountaineer morning line behind Concord Point, the 8-5 favorite.

Last year’s derby team went downhill fast

The winning horse and jockey in the West Virginia Derby last year did not exactly use the race as a springboard to even greater success. Soul Warrior, who upset Big Drama and Mine That Bird at 23-1, raced only once thereafter, finishing a distant fourth behind Regal Ransom in the Super Derby seven weeks later.

The ensuing months were even worse for jockey Dale Beckner, who only picked up the winning mount on Soul Warrior when the scheduled rider, Miguel Mena, failed to make travel connections from Saratoga. Nearly four weeks after the richest win of his career, on Aug. 28, 2009, Beckner was badly injured in a spill at Presque Isle Downs. He ultimately endured three surgeries after suffering multiple skull fractures, a broken eye socket, facial lacerations, and other injuries. He then took months to recover from a knee injury suffered in the same spill.

Fortunately for Beckner, who began his career in 1993, he came back April 26 by winning with his first mount at Philadelphia Park. Since returning, the 38-year-old jockey has won with 16 for 144 mounts while riding primarily in Pennsylvania.

Four get a feel for the track

Among the recent out-of-town arrivals who became more familiar with the Mountaineer racing surface with routine gallops early Thursday were the Southern California arrivals, Concord Point and Skipshot, along with Nacho Friend and Gunfighter.

Scratch time for the West Virginia Derby was Thursday morning, and there were no early defections from the field of nine.

◗ Here are the running patterns used by the last five winners of the West Virginia Derby, starting with the 2005 running: Real Dandy rallied from last of 11, Bright One led throughout, Zanjero came from fifth of eight, Ready Set closed from eighth of 11, and Soul Warrior rallied from a group of three closest to runaway leader Big Drama.

◗ The West Virginia Derby was first run in 1923 at the Tri-State Fairgrounds. It was run sporadically thereafter, eventually moving to Wheeling Downs in 1958, then in 1963 to Waterford Park (now Mountaineer). It became the first graded race in the state when awarded Grade 3 status in 2002 before becoming a Grade 2 last year.

◗ Unlike in all other Mountaineer races, when jockeys wear “house” silks (No. 1 is red, No. 2 white, No. 3 blue, etc.), the horses in the West Virginia Derby will carry their regular owner’s silks, according to track officials.

◗ Dana Whitney, formerly a perennial leading jockey at Mountaineer who in more recent times has been riding regularly at Penn National, is closing in on the 3,000-win milestone. Whitney, who began his career in 1995, had 2,991 wins into Thursday night action at Penn. He is named on two mounts Saturday at Mountaineer.