10/23/2008 11:00PM

Ghostly Thunder far exceeds Capuano's expectations

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Gary Capuano didn't have stakes aspirations when he paid $13,000 for a smallish colt at last year's Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's April 2-year-olds in training sale.

"I was just hanging out and I happened to see this colt who was a West Virginia-bred," recalled Capuano, a Maryland-based trainer who over the years has developed the likes of Kentucky Derby runner-up Captain Bodgit and millionaire Cherokee's Boy.

Capuano frequently ships horses to Charles Town to race, but, he said, he had never had a runner eligible to compete in statebred competition at the West Virginia track.

He needed to bid only once to bring home Ghostly Thunder, who was offered at the Florida sale by his breeder, long-established Charles Town horseman Buck Woodson, through the consignment of agent Melissa Hunt.

Owned by Capuano and Larry Fowler, Ghostly Thunder, now a gelding, has utilized his statebred credentials to hilt - capturing a total of five restricted stakes at Charles Town. By far the biggest came last Saturday night, when Ghostly Thunder prevailed by three-quarters of a length as 6-5 favorite in Charles Town's richest race, the $500,000 West Virginia Breeders Classic.

Ghostly Thunder - the only 3-year-old in the field of 10 - was the undisputed star of the 22nd annual West Virginia Breeders Classics, which featured nine races worth a total of $1.75 million for horses bred or sired in the state.

In 13 starts, all but two at Charles Town, Ghostly Thunder has collected 8 wins and $450,418.

"He's a tough little horse," said Capuano. "He's got a lot of heart and a lot of talent."

Ghostly Thunder's rumblings have naturally resounded at Woodson's Buckstud Farm near Charles Town, which is home to his sire, Ghostly Minister (by Deputy Minister).

Ghostly Minister sired the Classic winner in his first crop.

Woodson, 81, has bred, owned and trained many good Charles Town performers - most famously Onion Juice, who starred in the inaugural running of the West Virginia Breeders Classic in 1987. He won 27 of 65 starts and captured stakes at 4, 5, 6 and 7.

But this year's Classics night must also rank among Woodson's finest. He bred two winners on the card. The other was We're in the Money, who returned for her second win in a Classics race, this time capturing the West Virginia Division of Tourism at 7-1 odds.

We're in the Money (by Whywhywhy), owned by Ray Pennington and trained by Ollie Figgins III, was sold at the same sale as Ghostly Thunder. Her price was $28,000.

Woodson took only three to auction last year. After Classics night, two of them boasted a combined scorecard of nine stakes wins and $669,948 in earnings.

Still, for Woodson, the story of Ghostly Thunder's dam, Expressive Feather (by Chief Honcho), is far from happy.

The mare came from an accomplished family of Maryland-breds, but her own lackluster race record and unfashionable sire line cast doubts on her prospects as a broodmare.

Expressive Feather was given to Woodson by Bowie-based trainer Robert Kelly at the end of her racing career. She produced Ghostly Thunder as her second foal.

In the fall of 2006, Woodson - struggling with a lack of farm help - cut back drastically on his horse holdings. Expressive Feather, back in foal to Ghostly Minister, went through the ring at an auction in Charles Town, and brought only $400.

When Ghostly Thunder launched his career last year, Woodson began making inquiries about Expressive Feather, and was horrified by what he learned.

"She'd gone right from the sale to a slaughterhouse in Ohio," he said. "That taught me a lesson. I'm really careful now about selling my horses."

Woodson spoke of the experience because he believes it illustrates two important facts: "No horse deserves an end like that," he said. "And you never know where a good horse is coming from."