by Frank Vespe
“It started out the first year with Onion Juice,” Carol Holden recalled early Saturday night on the track apron at Charles Town. “He was a very popular Saturday night horse, and Sam [Huff] and I still remember, you could just feel the grandstand vibrate with people yelling, ‘C’mon, Juice.’ It was great.”
Onion Juice won the inaugural West Virginia Breeders Classic in 1987; that $100,000 race topped a five-stake card.
In Saturday’s twenty-ninth renewal of the West Virginia Breeders Classics, a horse named Help a Brother won the race named for Onion Juice, posting a nearly two-length win over frequent bridesmaid Comeonletsplay.
That seemed appropriate in its way, because the WVBC races have been helping brothers — and sisters — for nearly 30 years now.
West Virginia Breeders Classics has given away more than $350,000 to charity, Holden estimated. Recipients include the United Way, 4-H Horse Clubs of West Virginia, Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the Charles Town Races Chaplaincy, the Eastern Panhandle Care Clinic, and the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation. The last of those received $25,000 this year, earmarked for horses that were bred or raced in West Virginia.
More than that, the WVBC has been something of a catalyst for the state’s breeding industry — the number of eligible horses has risen from just 157 that first year to more than 360, Holden said — and an annual highlight for local horsemen.
“This is great. We work years for this,” said trainer Jeff Runco, who visited the winner’s circle four times, taking the evening’s first three races and also the last.
“We breed these horses, and we take a long time getting here and we’re preparing them for months and we’re raising them for years,” he continued. “So this is what it’s all about.”
“My God, I remember when they started, and what they’ve done is amazing,” Ken Lowe, a WVBC board member, said of Holden and Huff and the WVBC. “It’s all about the local horses and the breeding and the local talent.”
While Runco’s four wins made him the busiest of the local talent, he was not the only one to enjoy a productive evening.
Octogenarian horseman James W. Casey visited the winner’s circle early on the card when his hard-hitting six-year-old Greenway Court logged an easy win in the 4 1/2 furlong Dash for Cash. Greenway Court — named for the place George Washington lived when he surveyed the Shenandoah Valley, Casey said — is the second horse of that name to score on Breeders Classics night. Green Way Court, another Casey homebred, did so in 1989.
“That one was really good, and he was 20 years ago,” Casey sort-of-explained. “I just named a horse, and he went so good, I named another one.”
Casey was back at in the night’s top event, the $500,000 Classic, though not with the horse most expected. Fan favorite Russell Road, whose stirring and popular win in the event last year recalled memories of Onion Juice, finished a disappointing ninth as the second choice. But the same connections — Casey and owner Mark Russell — got the money anyway when their three-year-old Charitable Annuity, a son of Casey’s stallion Charitable Man, rallied stoutly to win by nearly three lengths.
“I just love this horse so much,” Russell said of Russell Road, “but I’m just so excited about Charitable Annuity and his future.”
Russell wrestled with emotions, the disappointment of Russell Road’s effort in a race that may (or may not) be his career finale dueling with excitement over a future for Charitable Annuity, now a winner of three straight and well over $300,000, that’s as bright as any local horse’s.
“To be involved with the Caseys and then move into the West Virginia-bred ranks and getting to this level where we can compete on what I refer to as our Super Bowl Saturday for West Virginia racing is just… I don’t know,” he said. “It’s so hard to explain. I couldn’t be happier just to be involved with the life that I have with the Thoroughbreds.”
John McKee is another who enjoyed the evening. As a trainer, he was in the win photo following his juvenile filly Aye a Song’s hard-fought win in the Triple Crown Nutrition. McKee bred both Aye a Song and the evening’s other two-year-old winner, Bullets Fever, who took the Vincent Moscarelli Memorial by five lengths. The latter is a full-brother to another horse McKee bred, Hidden Canyon, who ran his eyeballs out to be second in the Classic.
And then there was Lewis Craig, Jr., breeder-owner-trainer of Help a Brother. Why Help a Brother?
“I had a friend, we were working our cars, and I said, ‘Help a brother,'” Craig answered, “and he said, ‘That’s a good name for a horse.'”
Help a Brother, who finished a close up fourth in the Onion Juice in 2014, went off as the favorite this year though he had yet to record a stakes win in his 26-race career. He was much the best after a somewhat slow start.
“He’s a good little horse, a nice little horse. I love him,” Craig said. “It’s the first Classics win for me. It means a real lot. I wish my father was here, though. For him, I’m glad the horse win.”
Craig’s father won nearly 200 races in a training career that ended in 2007.
Business was brisk as a picture-perfect fall day gave way to a cool evening in the Mountain State, handle topping $1.5 million. The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation received its oversized novelty check for $25,000 in an infield ceremony between races. Brothers — and sisters, and horses — were helped.
“What a night, what a night, what a night,” said Mark Russell, his voice trailing away into the starry sky.