“I didn’t believe it,” Buck Woodson said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Even then, nearly 30 years past, doubt had no residence in Woodson’s West Virginia stable, the space long occupied by back-at-the-knees sensation Onion Juice. Race after marvelous race, the conformational misfit had outrun better-made rivals, winning stakes, stoking hope, assuring Woodson that certain gallant homebreds surmount odds far beyond the tote board.
This he had seen. But what he heard in the frosty gray Shenandoah foothills those early days of 1987, whispers of a lavish stakes-filled night for West Virginia horses the coming autumn, coaxed chilly skepticism. They foretold a debutante ball for a homely acquaintance, Charles Town racetrack, and the locals she’d long served. Woodson tried hard to picture the poor old wretch a made-up beauty, with a dowry no less, but conjured nothing.
Such was Charles Town’s sad persona, her hand-to-mouth existence: purses short of $25,000 certain nights; sub-$2,000 claimers; top-condition allowance races worth $5,700; a $15,000 stakes for standout state-breds.
“If you had a fifteen-hundred-dollar claimer, you had to win seven races a year to feed it,” Woodson said. “Once I told my wife, ‘We’re havin’ a good time goin’ broke, aren’t we?’ It wasn’t a real kind look she gave me.”
Sam Huff, a West Virginia-bred NFL Hall of Famer, sought a way to dress threadbare Charles Town in title-game finery, to enrich the track’s long-scuffling horsemen and toast their underappreciated state-bred runners; in sum, to turn the gaslight track electric. Then a nascent owner/breeder, Huff drew inspiration from the first Maryland Million, 1986, and pointedly pursued career horsewoman and racing administrator Carol Holden to sketch a blueprint for something they might call the West Virginia Breeders Classics.
A golf tournament, celebrity breakfast and black-tie affair would preface the inaugural running, and the program proper would boast all the trappings of a bona-fide pageant: infield-bound skydivers, corporate sponsorships and national TV coverage of the marquee race. For that, Huff envisioned a $100,000 contest, a sum unfathomed in Charles Town’s then-54-year span.
From Woodson’s Buckstud and beyond, misgivings sounded. A Charles Town HBPA official belly-laughed at the absurdity of a six-figure race, let alone four supporting $25,000s, especially with only token, promissory aid from pugnacious track owners. An employee of Charles Town’s scant publicity department told a work-anxious colleague, “Don’t worry – it’ll never happen.” Even Holden’s ledger spoke uncertainty: She had no dedicated checking account for Classics-related business, using counter checks as tender.
What happened next burnished West Virginia sporting lore, pumped the crowd, changed the scoreboard. Huff and Holden connected on a Hail Mary and hit pay dirt.
On Oct. 8, 2016, following days of related festivities, the 30th West Virginia Breeders Classics will showcase horses sired or bred in West Virginia, revive local rivalries, stir the masses anew and relate much of it across two TV networks. The extravaganza will praise the state breeding industry’s unquestioned gains, a cause it directly enhanced, and graphically portray West Virginia’s born-again essence-cum-slots. From the 1987 inaugural, which featured five races and $200,000 in purses, the 2016 edition promises nine races and $1.17 million. Said total would push collective Classics outlays beyond $25 million, a lasting bonanza for state horse owners and breeders.
Having co-piloted the Breeders Classics through three decades of swirling crosswinds, Holden alone now has the yoke. Huff had used his standing, initiative, acumen and geniality to persuade racing and business entities to back the project; in the process, he and Holden became life partners. They shepherded the Classics together, until dementia left Huff to the sidelines.
James W. “Jim” Casey, the Taylor Moun-tain Farm patriarch whose family has trained 43 Breeders Classics winners and owned 35, many of them homebreds, said the program remains a testament to Huff’s keen vision, bold deeds and homespun charm.
“Sam Huff had a lot of pull,” Casey said. “He was well-liked, well-known in the state. Nobody else could have done it, but he pulled it off.”
The ensuing Classics have blended melodramatic flair, outcomes poignant, buoyant and sullen, impressive sideshows and comical accents. And they’ve broadcast West Virginia-bred virtues in a way that both has fortified the product and awakened the world. In 2011, nearly a quarter-century after he won the first Classic headliner with Onion Juice, Woodson sold a War Front colt from the Old Trieste mare Dancing Trieste for $190,000, a record fetch for a West Virginia-bred weanling. The following year, Demi O’Byrne of Coolmore
Stud Ireland snared Giovanni Boldini for $675,000, a state-bred record for a yearling.
In his mid-80s then, Woodson bought a new farm, then another.
But as the Breeders Classics bathe Charles Town in bright and now-accustomed light, its bolstered principals peer into outlying darkness.
Toward Charleston, where antipathetic state legislators steadfastly have reduced West Virginia’s slots-drawn purse supplements. Toward Maryland, where the stout appetite for late-coming casino play continues to thwart Charles Town’s gaming take – with National Harbor’s pending launch an added shackle. Toward the bottom line, where purse distributions at West Virginia’s horse tracks, Charles Town and Mountaineer, totaled $43 million in 2015 – less than half their 2004 peak of $89.6 million, according to The Jockey Club. The chokehold ongoing, horsemen have braced for further tightening this year.
“It’s basically, at this point, an unstable environment to invest in,” said O’Sulli-van Farms owner and Charles Town Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association President Randy Funkhouser.
Cuts have stung the Classics too. The race program once received 1 percent of slots proceeds; now, 0.5 percent. Correspondingly, its annual outlays have nearly halved, from a $1.985 million peak in 2009 to $1.08 million last year.
The penetrating impact of the Classics on West Virginia breeding, and of the purse cuts on horsemen, relate squarely through the deeds and aims of Jim Miller. A Hagerstown, Md., resident, Miller bought his first horse in 2011, built an unnamed 20-acre farm outside Charles Town in 2014 and births each of his 15 mares there, making them West Virginia-breds and thus Classics-eligible. He races those he doesn’t sell.
Miller said he established a breeding operation in West Virginia largely for the Classics; he won the Triple Crown Nutrition with homebred 2-year-old fillies in 2013 and ’14 and sold a $250,000 Candy Ride colt, from the Lemon Drop Kid mare Mantekilla, at last year’s Fasig-Tipton October Fall Yearling Sale in Kentucky. But with Charles Town’s purses and breeders’ supplements diminishing, Miller said, he’ll consider foaling some of his mares outside West Virginia starting 2017.
Holden, wise to the trends and growing anxiety, said, “Of course it’s a little bit different now worrying about the purse money. We were on a nice, steady roll. I felt sorry for everybody in Maryland but was glad for us. Now the tables have turned.”
• • •
The phone message, Holden thought, promised more a bother. A Marriott hotel VP named Huff had called to see if they could meet. It was May 1985.
“I thought it was just another executive looking for an afternoon in Middleburg,” she said.
At the time, Holden worked “both sides of the mountain”: mornings at the West Virginia Thoroughbred Development Fund at Charles Town, created a year earlier to promote state-breds by offering bonuses to breeders and owners of racers and stallions; afternoons in Middleburg, Va., not far from home, developing racing syndications. That venture launched from Holden’s $6,200 pluck of Maryland-bred juvenile filly Owned by All (Mitey Prince—Mare Calda, by Gaelic Dancer), who’d win five stakes, place in the 1984 Barbara Fritchie Handicap-G3 and earn $328,983.
Huff hadn’t such early scores with Marco Island, a gelding he owned with former West Virginia state legislator (and eventual Kentucky governor) Brereton Jones and Atlanta-based sports columnist Furman Bisher. But, from that first meeting, Holden scanned commitment.
They drove to a grassy range of Middle-burg, 22 giving acres, that Huff had purchased. Along the way, he’d extolled the thrill of racing, the apparent scholarship behind Thoroughbred matings and the agricultural good that comes from each. Holden absorbed it all, until Huff started referencing his football past: for the West Virginia University Mountaineers (as an all-American), for the New York Giants (as the first rookie middle linebacker to start for an NFL champion, 1956) and later for the Washington Redskins (his last stop before the Hall of Fame). How, after a demanding football season that paid him $5,000, he’d return to Farmington, W.Va., to work in the local grocery, keen to help the hometown team.
After the conversation lulled, she asked, “Who was it you said you played for?”
But the open pastures of Huff’s acquisition kept her attention. This guy from West Virginia coal country, quite apparently, meant to cultivate another natural resource: The Horse. This she could follow: From childhood, Holden had looked to The Horse to take her places real and envisioned.
Father had found a Depression-era bargain, a farm in Chester County, Penn-syl-vania, where he bought and sold horses, opened a riding academy and offered hayrides. He left for a time, working to build a naval base in Panama to better pay off farm-related debts, but later had a stroke and had to liquidate. Holden pondered options.
“I come from a long line of school teachers, ministers and horse gyps,” she said. “I got so tired of having to answer the question, ‘What are you going to do? Teach?’ Because I’m of that era where you were either a nurse or you taught school. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I wasn’t going to be a nurse or a schoolteacher.”
Caretaking and tutoring touched other subjects. She ponied at Dover Downs, Garden State and Liberty Bell, groomed horses, walked hots for Buddy Delp at Bowie, did whatever needed doing at Rocketts Mill Farm in Doswell, Va., served as Penn National’s horsemen’s bookkeeper, drove a tractor, hunted and showed and rode for pleasure. Now she stood with Huff, surveying an open swath of Middleburg green that housed only his dreams.
The broodmare barn will go over there, he told her, the training track there, the paddocks there. He didn’t address the front drive, which would come to feature two gateposts: one the red, white and blue of Huff Farm, the other the pink and green of Holden’s Sporting Life Farm.
Another grand collaboration would soon germinate. In October 1986, they drove from Middleburg to suburban Maryland, Sam at the wheel of a young Oldsmobile. “At that time he was doing television ads for Templeton Olds,” Holden said. “He got a new one every six months.”
The on-track doings at Laurel Race Course that day left Huff to rev. This novelty called the Maryland Million featured the racing offspring of Maryland stallions. Fans were charged, purses plump, races moving. On the way back, he asked Holden why Charles Town couldn’t mimic the program in West Virginia.
She rattled off the reasons: the state’s relatively insubstantial stallion population, the fund-raising trudge beyond nomination revenues, the organizational challenges, the lack of backing from cash-strapped track owners.
Huff thought a moment. Work on the eligibility part, he told her. I’ll manage the rest.
Holden deduced that a program for West Virginia-sired or -bred offspring would give the Classics 157 eligible runners, a sufficient wellspring, which started the creative waters burbling. Huff spoke his hopes to Harry Buch, then state racing commission chairman and dedicated industry proponent, and eventually with Gov. Arch Moore. Holden directed Huff to Millard Harrell, her mentor at the Development Fund, and to Dickie Moore, who’d endured Charles Town’s lasting plight as mutuels money runner, clerk of scales and racing secretary.
Moore and Huff met in Holden’s Charles Town office, a place Holden called The Roach Den.
“Sam’s talkin’ about gettin’ all these sponsors, and havin’ all this money, and I was like, ‘Man, is this guy good or what?’ ” said Moore, now Charles Town’s general manager of racing operations. “And he said, ‘It’s gonna be your job to get the horses.’ I said, ‘Well, the money you’re talking about, I think we can get these West Virginia people to run their horses. I can’t tell you how good it’s gonna be, but I think we can do it.’ ”
Through Buch’s lead blocks, holes were opened to fund Classics purses through uncashed pari-mutuel tickets; sponsorships would cover operating expenses and the cost of Classics-week festivities. Bill Chesley, general manager of a local J.C. Penney, became founding sponsor at $2,500.
In the spring of 1987, Huff and Holden drove to the Hunt Valley Inn in Baltimore County to dine on the wisdoms of Rich Wilcke, Maryland Horse Breeders Association executive and Maryland Million insider. Specifically, they sought guidance on the travails of launching the Million, the legal way to structure and establish it, how best to sustain it, potential pitfalls.
Beyond the logistical, other challenges hovered. A possible West Virginia teachers’ strike commanded legislative and public attention the first half of ’87, leaving Huff and Holden disinclined to announce the advent of the Classics for fear critics would deem their funding source better used for education.
That June, the teachers’ issues settled, Huff and Holden publicly disclosed plans for the first West Virginia Breeders Classic program on Sept. 11, a mere three months later. Holden said one horsewoman groused that the short turnaround would imposition her.
Through a football chum who’d ascended the distillery business, Huff got Jim Beam to sponsor the first Classic. When funds still appeared flimsy as liftoff drew near, Huff even squeezed a $10,000 loan from tightfisted track president D. Keith Wagner – to be repaid within 10 days.
Hours before the early evening launch, as Huff and Holden coordinated the parachustists’ dramatic arrival, other less-obvious challenges emerged. A $25,000 pledge from the state lottery hadn’t arrived, and soon came on-track grumblings about, of all things, music.
“It was 5 o’clock or so,” Holden said. “Somebody came into the office – The Roach Den – and said that the outrider wasn’t going to allow ‘Country Roads’ to be played before the race because it might upset the horses. Harry Buch said, ‘I’ll take care of it, Sam,’ because Sam was about to become very unglued.
“Eventually, Sam and I went out and looked down the track as the horses were coming out. ‘Country Roads’ was playing, and the only horse acting up was the outrider’s.”
The warm, clear night was almost heaven. A state lottery rep showed with a $25,000 check, and Charles Town connections won three of four $25,000 stakes on the undercard, Willowdale Farms snaring two of them. The lone exception: Rock House, a 2-year-old chestnut colt who trucked in from Birmingham, Ala., and won the Vincent Moscarelli Memorial for an upstart trainer who’d gotten his first stakes score that very year.
Among the 7,518 present, few knew of 21-year-old trainer Steve Asmussen, but many knew and adored 7-year-old wonder-horse Onion Juice. Buck Woodson’s oddly made knockabout had come to typify Charles Town’s underdog ways, and the art of the possible. Onion Juice stepped into that first Classic with a gaudy 25 wins from 60 starts.
“He had a lot of problems; sometimes we didn’t even think he would be able to race,” Woodson said. Of the bay’s back-at-the-knees issues, he said, “He woulda made a nice bow for a bow and arrow.”
Despite public zealotry, Onion Juice brought 4-1 odds to the Classic; Bob’s Boomer, another local hero at age 8, stood at 2-1 and Delaware Park émigré Kiss My Tan the 9-5 choice. The gates opened. William Lewis Jr. sent Onion Juice along to an undisturbed lead.
“I think I was settin’ with some friends in one of the box seats down there,” Woodson said. “I don’t think I could afford a box seat at the time. I’m pretty sure I was a nervous wreck runnin’ in a hundred-thousand-dollar race.”
Down the backstretch, past the stands, through the backstretch and far turn Onion Juice held. Bob’s Boomer escaped the chasing pack, gaining on the leader.
“I can still remember that night: the stands were packed,” Randy Funkhouser said. “From the top of the lane to the wire, I could feel the grandstand swayin’. And you heard this chant: ‘Juice! Juice! Juice! Juice!’ ”
Onion Juice held for the richest score in Charles Town history, and an ebullient Woodson said he’d further the West Virginia breed by retiring his homebred son of Quartermaster and the Victoria Park mare Menage. The following spring, Onion Juice covered 12 mares at Woodson’s 16-acre farm on Willingham Road, a skip from the racetrack, got 10 in foal and remained so frisky that Woodson put him back in training – for the Classic.
Kiss My Tan won that second running in ’88, which sent trainer Larry Metz throughout the Mid-Atlantic and on to Kentucky in search of West Virginia-breds. “This [Breeders Classics] program in West Virginia has become something we point for every year,” he said at the time.
For the 1989 event, Huff and Holden arranged to have horse-drawn carriages shuttle sponsors and dignitaries from the backstretch chute to the grandstand. Former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen sat in one carriage, Gov. Arch Moore in another.
“The one carrying the governor was coming up the chute,” Holden said. “The horse was acting up. The sand was really deep. And all of a sudden we realized his carriage was splitting down the middle with his horse about ready to bolt. Got him out of there in a hurry. Put the governor in another one, the show went on and nobody up on the frontside really knew what happened.”
Awareness grew elsewhere. The underlying objective of the Classics, to compel horse buyers and breeders to rethink their image of the West Virginia-bred, had taken root. As outside interests began to gauge new opportunity and the program’s now-$125,000 headliner, the Caseys turned it into a family affair.
Taylor Mountain (Dancing Czar—Area Conference, by Ambernash) drew in as an also-eligible for the ’89 Classic, overpowered 3-10 Kiss My Tan with stunning ease and started the Caseys on a five-year gallop. Taylor Mountain won the Classic again in ’90 for owner Eleanor Casey and breeder/trainer husband Jim, who then yielded to their sons. John Allen Casey owned and bred 1991 hero Nice Ainit and 1992-93 winner Coin Collector, both trained by veterinarian brother James M. (Jimmy) Casey.
Carol Holden and Sam Huff frame the presenation after the 1990 Classic, where Eleanor and Jim Casey flank jockey Lillian "Mitch" Kuykendall after the Caseys' homebred Taylor Mountain won his second Classic, and cemented the Casey family's success in the races.
“The Classic thing has been a big shot in the arm to everybody,” Jim Casey said. In their case, big enough to help afford a 146-acre farm in Charles Town called Taylor Mountain, Jim’s final army training exercise at Fort Dix.
Beyond the Casey family album, the six-race 1992 program embellished other scrapbooks. John McKee bred three winners on the card, each sired by Aye’s Turn. One, Rachel’s Turn, had developed hives that morning and received three baking powder baths before making the Schweppes U.S.A. her 13th of 15 career victories.
Classics race sponsors, meantime, came and went: Kamora succeeded Jim Beam in underwriting the 1990 Classic, then yielded to Ronrico in 1992. Through the changes, the Classics program grew in purse and substance as Charles Town grew frail.
Frailer still come 1994, after Jefferson County voted down a referendum to put 400 video-lottery terminals – a euphemism for slot machines – at the track. Citing $2 million in two-year losses and teetering on insolvency, Charles Town owners closed the track for three months to start 1995 in a worthy bid to stem losses and stave off creditors.
Unrest and uncertainty lingered into summer. Management threatened more closures. Horsemen threatened a boycott. And Huff made the firm decision to move the 1995 Classics to Mountaineer Park.
A year later, another slots bill deemed likely to pass and Penn National positioned as a conditional buyer, the Classics returned to Charles Town for good. In time, as the track expanded its gambling menu and got a glitzy makeover, the Classics grew and changed too. Purse funding once linked to uncashed pari-mutuel tickets later would derive from 1 percent of slots proceeds (eventually reduced to a half-percent).
In 2004, the Classics program dealt $1 million in prize money for the first time. A year thereafter, the Classic headliner reached $500,000, a level maintained each year since as program-wide purses grew, then ebbed.
Along the way, Classics races inflated and inflicted. In 1999, the brilliant-but-fragile A Huevo splashed to a track record for trainer Michael Dickinson, the revision and the purse later expunged for a clenbuterol infraction. Five years and five races later, A Huevo (Cool Joe—Verabald, by Baldski) returned at age 8 and won the Classic by nearly 20 lengths despite Ramon Dominguez’s taut rein. Energized by his 2005 title defense, bettors made him 1-2 and readied again for his glorious strides. Instead they saw his last: A Huevo broke down barely a furlong into the race and couldn’t be saved.
In 2002, O’Sullivan Farms homebred Confucius Say won his second straight Classic, this by nearly a dozen lengths, and might have revised the nine-furlong track record had jockey Larry Reynolds pushed him. Better he didn’t: Confucius Say left the race with a minor tendon bow.
The Funkhousers gave him more than three years to heal, then returned him to trainer George Yetsook to stride toward the 2006 Breeders Classics. He won a supporting stakes that night, the $100,000 Onion Juice, and returned the following year for an after-the-fact victory in the Classic. Second in the race, Confucius Say was promoted after the disqualification of first-place Eastern Delite for a medication violation. By Eastover Court from the Feel the Power mare Mo Chun, Confucius Say stood the first and only winner of four Breeders Classics races.
With the retirement of Confucius Say in 2009, Russell Road (Wheaton—Roberta Grump, by Verification) became the program’s enduring heartthrob. He too has won three Breeders Classics (2009, ’11 and ’14), finished second twice and in August surpassed $2 million in earnings at age 10. He’s won 31 of 62 for owner Mark Russell and trainer Jim Casey, and might get another crack at the Classic this year.
Across Charles Town, horsemen say Huff and Holden succeeded in their underlying quest to enhance the West Virginia-bred; in the words of Funkhouser, to elevate “backyard breeding programs.”
He added, “Things started to grow. It gave a higher visibility, and a showcase for our best West Virginia-breds. It encouraged people to breed better horses to win lucrative purses. And, with that, we went out and tried to get the best horses that we could stand at stud.”
To O’Sullivan stallion Shy Native, the Funkhousers added Feel the Power, Eastover Court, Prized, Housebuster and Bop; later Limehouse, second this year among Mid-Atlantic studs, and others.
At Taylor Mountain, Dancing Czar, Weshaam and My Boy Adam predated now-aged stallions Windsor Castle (18) and Luftikus (20). To bolster stud rolls, Casey spent $100,000 on Charitable Man, by far West Virginia’s leading freshman sire of 2014, and Denis of Cork. Charitable Man also fathered 2015 Classic winner Charitable Annuity (from the Luftikus mare Early Annuity), whom Casey trains for Mark Russell.
For all his farm’s homebred successes, Casey said, Charitable Man had the means to become his most prominent stallion, until he died without warning of apparent cardiac-related causes May 30, a half-hour after eating. He was 10.
“Just a beautiful horse,” Casey said. “Nice. Do anything. Smart.” Offspring “just like he was.”
Breeding to race, he sends most of his two dozen mares to house stallions, mindful of the safety net the Breeders Classics provide.
“I think it makes a big difference, because you can have a mediocre year and jump up and win one of those races, especially one of the big ones, and it really helps you out,” Casey said.
Since Woodson scored with his sale of Giovanni Boldini, eventually a close second in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf-G1, he has sent most of his 10 mares to commercial stallions, brought them back to West Virginia to foal and sold their offspring. His farm bears two weanlings by Twirling Candy, others by The Factor, Munnings, Stephen Got Even, Oxbow. One lost a foal to Stay Thirsty. And he sold Dancing Trieste, Giovanni Boldini’s dam, in foal to The Factor for $450,000.
“Giovanni put me in a position of breeding better horses,” Woodson said. “I was tryin’ to before, but I don’t think the Lord wanted me to do too much; he wanted to keep me mediocre. I guess he figured that I wouldn’t know what to do with it at the time. When I got in my 80s, he seemed to think, well, maybe he’s got enough sense to do better now.”
Still, Woodson remains watchful of the gathering storm clouds, and wary. “Racing’s not doin’ too good at Charles Town,” he said, “and that affects the breeding and so forth, ’cause I sell commercially.”
Miller, the Maryland infrastructure financier and influential newcomer to West Virginia breeding, owns the More Than Ready broodmare Rebalite, dam of Tapit-sired multiple graded stakes winner Race Day. Miller bred Rebalite to Orb in Kentucky, brought her home and will decide whether to end his string of foaling West Virginia-breds. “That has a lot more to do with what West Virginia does or doesn’t do,” he said.
Funkhouser, of O’Sullivan Farms, has made a decision regarding a Blame-sired filly out of homebred diva Julie B, the family’s two-time Breeders Classic winner who made $890,000. The yearling, Blame Julie, was scheduled for auction at the Keeneland Yearling Sale in September.
“She’s absolutely one of the nicest, if not the nicest, we’ve ever had here,” Funkhouser said. “Big, nice-boned, perfectly balanced, very intelligent. I hate to sell her, but you’ve got to pay the bills somehow.
“With the cost of everything going up so much, and the purses and breeders’ awards going down, it’s caught a lot of people and hit ’em very, very hard. Everyone. Us included.”
This year, for the 30th time, the Breeders Classics will pour a tonic for thirsty horsemen; another spritz might come one month later in the state gubernatorial election. Jim Justice (D), The Greenbrier resort owner who has pledged fraternity with the horse-racing industry, led by 14 percentage points over Republican challenger Bill Cole in a September poll. A Justice victory might well reward the state racing and breeding industry, the lodestone of Huff’s and Holden’s Breeders Classics creation.
“Sam’s overarching desire was to see West Virginia do well,” Holden said. “He tried to do the best for the state. I want to keep it going, not just for him but for the horsemen. It’s important.”
Sure, race industry principals say, Charles Town’s revival has become theirs. But long before the renaissance, the Classics had brought unforeseen glimpses of fortune and promise. Once-woebegone horsemen crossed the bridge to a land of plenty, and no one’s looking to turn back.