08/02/2012 12:53PM

West Virginia Derby notes: Asmussen targets another Mountaineer upset


CHESTER, W.Va. – Three years ago this weekend, Steve Asmussen saddled Kensei in the Saratoga paddock, ducked in to watch Soul Warrior give him his third victory in the West Virginia Derby on a television monitor, then stepped outside to watch Kensei win the Jim Dandy.

“Those were five of the best minutes of my life,” Asmussen recalled.

On Saturday, Asmussen will again be watching the West Virginia Derby from Saratoga and hoping for something similar. Asmussen will be represented in the Mountaineer Park showcase by the 6-1 co-second choice, Macho Macho, and although the colt faces a rugged task in trying to defeat heavily favored Hansen, his chances seem better than they were for Soul Warrior. Pitted against Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Big Drama, an eventual winner of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Soul Warrior outran his 23-1 odds in prevailing under jockey Dale Beckner.

“We’ve had extremely good fortune at Mountaineer,” said Asmussen, who also won the West Virginia Derby with Real Dandy in 2005 and Zanjero in 2007.

[WEST VIRGINIA DERBY: Get PPs and watch Saturday’s full card live]

Macho Macho, with Corey Nakatani back to ride, comes off a solid effort in the July 8 Long Branch Stakes at Monmouth Park. The gray son of Macho Uno rallied to finish second, beaten a half-length in the 1 1/16-mile race. He now gets an extra half-furlong Saturday.

“Hansen in there is extremely formidable,” Asmussen said. “But I do like the timing of this race off the Long Branch. I thought he ran a strong race there and I expect him to move forward.”

Macho Macho, owned by Jerry Durant, comes well drawn in post 4 in the field of 10.

2009 W.Va. Derby still stands out

That 2009 edition remains the most memorable in the 42 prior runnings of the West Virginia Derby, primarily because a Kentucky Derby winner was in the field and a record crowd of 21,218 jammed into Mountaineer. Soul Warrior won by a neck, with Big Drama another 1 1/2 lengths before Mine That Bird. The defeat was the third of nine straight that followed the 50-1 Kentucky Derby stunner for Mine That Bird, now a 6-year-old in retirement in New Mexico.

Mike Smith, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode Mine That Bird that day, will return for the first time Saturday as the rider of Hansen.

Beckner, who only got the mount on Soul Warrior because scheduled rider Miguel Mena missed his flight from Saratoga, would suffer severe head and facial injuries four weeks later in a spill at Presque Isle Downs. That 2009 score remains easily the richest in a 19-year riding career of Beckner, now 40 and still a regular at Presque Isle.

Hansen colors should prove popular

Jockeys in all races at Mountaineer wear standardized house silks, with one exception: the West Virginia Derby. So instead of Smith being attired in the green-and-orange striped silks that No. 9 normally would carry in a Mountaineer race, he will be all decked out in the yellow and blue representing the colt’s majority owner, Kendall Hansen.

Those silks should prove popular with local fans, since the colors of the only major sports teams in the state – those from West Virginia University – also are yellow and blue.

◗ Mountaineer racing officials had hoped to get their first West Virginia Derby runner from far western Canada in Taylors Deal, a gelding based at Hastings Park in Vancouver. There was even talk that Mario Gutierrez, who rode I’ll Have Another to win the Derby and Preakness this spring, would be his jockey. Alas, the deal fell through when it became known that the one-way shipping cost from Vancouver to Pittsburgh was $15,000.

◗ Several riding assignments for the West Virginia Derby were amended Thursday morning and will be reflected on the Saturday program. They are: Calvin Borel rides Z Camelot, a maiden trained by Dale Romans; Daniel Centeno rides Called to Serve, the lone California shipper in the race; and Jon Court rides Macho Bull for Gennadi Dorochenko, who keeps Eddie Martin Jr. on Hero to Order, his 109-1 winner of the Louisiana Derby.