02/15/2002 1:00AM

Once-bleak business now booms


The rising tide of prosperity at Charles Town is lifting the entire West Virginia breeding industry to new heights, and nowhere is the trend more apparent than at Beau Ridge Farm, the Bunker Hill, W. Va., establishment of John McKee and Cynthia O'Bannon.

Beau Ridge is standing 10 stallions this season, with expectations of covering approximately 300 mares - numbers that would have been unthinkable anywhere in the Panhandle State as recently as five years ago.

But once video lottery terminals came to Charles Town in 1997, "It really has been like a new world for us," said O'Bannon, who also serves as president of the West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association.

Beau Ridge Farm, established by McKee in 1969, nearly went out of business in the early 1990's, admitted O'Bannon. "We were thinking about relocating to Kentucky and concentrating mostly on cattle," she said. Now McKee and O'Bannon are making plans to move Beau Ridge, which is by far the state's largest stallion operation, to a new site closer to Charles Town.

They hope to sign a contract within 60 days on a 230-acre property that they intend to remodel - with at least two brand-new barns - in time for the 2003 breeding season.

The major turnaround, fueled by VLT's, arrived at Beau Ridge in 2000, as O'Bannon explained it. "That first year, we were getting a lot of barren mares, mares who had gone unbred for several years. A lot of West Virginia breeders didn't want to sell their mares, but they didn't see any point in spending the money to breed them.

"The following year [2001] most of those mares came back to us to foal, and a lot of our clients bought new mares, too. This season it's been almost overwhelming - so many people want to get into the West Virginia program," O'Bannon said.

A key incentive, of course, is the state's breeding fund program, which disburses breeder, owner and (in many cases) stallion bonuses tied to a West Virginia-bred's purse earnings at Charles Town. "West Virginia-breds get paid a bonus on every penny of the purse share. That is really important," said O'Bannon. "The money adds up - often it's close to 100 percent of the purse earnings. So to win a race with a West Virginia-bred can be like winning two races."

Beau Ridge's stallion roster reached its full complement with the recent addition of Castine (by Mr. Prospector-Written Word, by Vice Regent), who enters stud this season, and Explosive Red, a Grade 1-winning son of Explodent with a solid sire record in his first three crops to race.

"Ten is our limit. We're not taking any more than that," said O'Bannon.

In the future, she said, any major additions to the Beau Ridge ranks will be due to reshuffling, as stallions age, for instance, and are replaced by younger stock.

The Mr. Prospector/Northern Dancer cross, represented so successfully by the former Beau Ridge stallion Glide, whom O'Bannon and McKee reluctantly sold to Korea a few years back, can be found in a number of Beau Ridge stallions.

Others standing at Beau Ridge this season are:

o Emancipator (Forty Nine-Contredance, by Danzig). Entered stud in 2000.

o Catastrophe (Storm Cat-Real Jenny, by Valid Appeal). Enters stud in 2002.

o Jove Stone (Northern Jove-Gemstone, by Graustark). Entered stud in 2001.

o Landing Zone (Conquistador Cielo-Delta Slew, by Seattle Slew). First foals race this season.

o Loach (Lines of Power-Scarlet Rain, Rainy Lake). Sire of two stakes winners from four small crops to race.

o Robb (Strawberry Road-Over All, by Mr. Prospector). Entered stud in 2001.

o Standing on Edge (Deputy Minister-Sticky Prospect, by Mr. Prospector). Entered stud in 2000.

o Storm Center (Storm Bird-Morning Devotion, by Affirmed). Four small crops to race.