WVBC: Runco readies big group for “our Breeders’ Cup”
Aaron’s Tap won on Charles Town Oaks night and has five wins this year. Photo by Coady Photography.
by Ted Black
A glimpse at both the history of the West Virginia Breeders Classics and the nominations for the upcoming edition of the card on Saturday reveals the impact that trainer Jeff Runco has had on the runnings thus far and the potential for his runners to be among the serious contenders for perhaps eight of the nine stakes on the program.
Runco has won more than 4,000 races in his career as a conditioner, dwarfing the 246 he won as a local jockey, and his impact on the track’s biggest night has been felt for nearly 25 years since E.B.F. Express captured the 1994 edition of the West Virginia Breeders Classic. He won the Classic again six years later with Coolmars and then 10 years later with his homebred, Sea Rescue. Three years ago he saddled four winners then three more the following year including the Classic with another homebred, the late Slip the Cable.
In all, Runco has won 18 WVBC races as the trainer of record.
“It’s usually a very busy night and we always hope for a little luck in some of those races,” Runco said of the West Virginia Breeders Classics. “It’s the one night up here that everyone really looks forward to seeing their horses race. For a lot of the local guys and for me and my wife [Suzanne Runco], it’s definitely like our version of the Breeders’ Cup. There are a lot of guys up here who need to do well on the big night just to keep them going again next year.”
Runco trainees will likely be represented in eight of the nine stakes, all except for the Vincent Moscarelli Memorial for two-year-olds.Two of his runners, Aaron’s Tap and Battleground Star, loom likely solid choices in their respective events on Saturday night, the $75,000 West Virginia Dash for Cash for state-bred older runners going one turn and the $75,000 Triple Crown Nutrition Breeders Classic for juvenile fillies trying two turns.
“If you look at the numbers for Aaron’s Tap, you can see he is actually equally as good in the two-turn races up here as he is the one-turn races,” Runco said. “He’s been able to win his last two here going one turn because the races just have not been coming up as tough as the two-turn races. But I’ve also nominated him to the Onion Juice [at seven furlongs] because he can win going two turns. Battleground Star has been doing really good since the first day and she’s got plenty of speed, but I’ve always felt that she wanted to go further, so we’ll see how she does [in the Triple Crown Nutrition BC].”
In years past Runco trainees have also been among the favorites for the Cavada for fillies and mares, the West Virginia Lottery for three-year-olds, the West Virginia Division of Tourism for three-year-old fillies and the West Virginia Breeders Classic Distaff for fillies and mares traveling nine furlongs. Runco won three of those four races three years ago and also took the Moscarelli with the unbeaten Bullets Fever. Both Bullets Fever and Slip the Cable came right back the following year to win the West Virginia Lottery and the Classic, respectively.
“No matter how well the horses are training leading up to the big night, you always need a little luck in the draw and again on the race night,” Runco said. “I’ve been fortunate to have horses like Bullets Fever and Slip the Cable who were doing good leading into the race and had a little luck on the big night. I’ve been fortunate to win some of the big stakes, but I’ve also missed on a few in some close photos.”
Runco-trained runners finished second and third in last year’s Classic and both of those horses, North Atlantic and Weekend Liberty, are nominated to this year’s test. North Atlantic was beaten a nose by two-time winner Charitable Annuity, and Weekend Liberty was another nose back in third.
North Atlantic is another Runco homebred and has won five of seven starts this year, including three allowance races at the three-turn distance of nine furlongs over the local strip. Despite his game effort in last year’s Classic and his solid form this spring and summer, he will likely yield the favorite’s role to Runnin’toluvya, the Tim Grams trainee riding a five-race win streak including a handy, six-length score in the $50,000 Frank Gall Memorial last month.
“North Atlantic has always wanted to go further than most of the other horses that I have in training for the big night and he’s coming into it perfect,” Runco said. “They don’t write a lot of those three-turn allowance races up here, so when they’re in the [condition] book you have to make sure you go in there. He’s won three times going a longer distance up here this year, and he’ll be fit. I know Tim’s horse is coming into really good, but he’s never been that far before, so maybe that will be to our advantage.”