Muad’dib named WV horse of the year in melancholy ceremony

Muad’dib’s people, including owner David Raim (red tie) and trainer Jeff Runco (third from right), celebrated Muad’dib’s WVBC win. Photo by Coady Photography.

Sunday evening’s annual West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association awards dinner was equally celebratory and somber. Equine and human winners alike were recognized for their successes on the track in 2022, while several others who have recently departed were acknowledged for their lifelong contributions to the local racing industry.

During a sobering last 18 months, which West Virginia breeding and racing has parted with such luminaries as Randy Funkhouser, James W. Casey, Dennis Bybee, John McKee, and most shockingly and recently, John A. Casey. John Casey, the son of James Casey and known primarily for his work with Down Town Allen, passed away two days before the annual breeders awards dinner,  

McKee’s impact on the state’s breeding industry were on full display on Sunday, as many of the horses that he bred were recognized as well as his superb stallion, Fiber Sonde, and broodmare Holy Pow Wow, both of which were also honored.

For the second consecutive year, Muad’dib was named both champion older horse and horse of the year, though he also met defeat for the first time this year. A son of Fiber Sonde trained by Jeff Runco for owner David Raim, Muad’dib captured his second consecutive West Virginia Breeders’ Classic and was second to Art Collector in the Grade 2, $1 million Charles Town Classic.

Although she is typically far removed from the spotlight, Cyndy McKee found herself making frequent trips to the trophy table on Sunday evening. Less than a month after her husband, breeder-trainer John McKee passed away following an extended bout with prostate cancer and subsequent kidney failure, Cyndy McKee accepted two trophies for Silky Serena, who was named champion three-year-old filly and champion female sprinter and won the finale on the 2022 West Virginia Breeders Classics night card, and another for herself and her late husband, honored as top breeders.

“Even up until the final two hours before he passed away, I never imagined that he was leaving me,” Cyndy McKee said, noting that she and her husband, married just three years earlier, had spent the Christmas holidays in Charleston, South Carolina. “He was always so strong and so alert. He was in the hospital for about 10 days, but then he came home for a week before he went back on that Saturday and that’s when he passed.”

As a trainer, McKee will be perhaps be remembered for his work with Rachel’s Turn, one of the early stars of the WVBC events, and later with Bridging the Gap, heroine of the Cavada. But as a breeder, his Beau Ridge Farm will forever be associated with Fiber Sonde, a stallion whose stud fee never surpassed $1,000 despite his prolonged success.

Trainer Anthony Farrior (far left) and owner-breeder Jim Miller (second from left) teamed up with both 2yo champions. Photo Ted Black.

“Right after John passed away, I went home and went right to the barn and hugged Fiber,” Cyndy McKee recalled. “Our farm is always going to be the one that Fiber built. John was never going to raise his stud fee. We’ve always stood our stallions for $1,000. He could have gotten more for Fiber, but John always wanted to see his name as breeder. He wasn’t in it for himself, he always to see what he could do to help the other local guys.”

Trainer Anthony Farrior, who topped the standings at Charles Town last season and owns a comfortable advantage this year, as well, led the nation’s trainers in wins through February. Two of his trainees, Marz Express and Honeyquist,, were named champion two-year-old filly and champion two-year-old male on Sunday. Marz Express won three of five starts and earned $100,000 last season, while Honeyquist won twice and finished second twice in four seasonal outings as a freshman.

Free Sailin, who capped his sophomore season with an allowance victory over Muad’dib and opened the current campaign with an allowance victory at Mahoning Valley, was named champion three-year-old for owner-trainer Jason DaCosta. He won two local stakes, including the WV Lottery Breeders’ Classic.

Penguin Power, who transitioned from a two-turn star to a one-turn sprinter last fall, was named champion male sprinter for Runco and Raim. The highlight of the now-eight-year-old’s 2022 campaign was a win in the WVBC Dash for Cash, which made him just the second horse to win four WVBC events in a career.

Prominent breeders Randy Funkhouser and James W. Casey both were posthumously recognized with the Sam Huff Award for their longtime contributions to horse racing in West Virginia. Funkhouser passed away in the fall of 2021, while Casey passed away in January.