Stakes, turf races highlight summer at Mountaineer

CHESTER – The first stakes event run at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort occurred on June 28, 1952, when a 4-year-old gelding named Freddie Baum took the $7,025 Iron City Handicap. His final time of 1:10 4/5 equaled what was then the track record for six furlongs.

Back then, Mountaineer was known as Waterford Park and the purse distribution for its entire season (which encompassed 64 days) was only $750,325. The premier race at Waterford that year was the $12,400 Gateway Stakes, which was won by a 3-year-old gelding named Heutel in what was then a track record clocking of 1:50 for 1 1/8 miles.

Today, the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby alone is worth $750,000. Its 45th running will take place on Aug. 2 and will anchor a nine-race card comprised entirely of open stakes for purses totaling $1.65 million.

“Stakes provide the foundation for a racetrack’s overall schedule, and they also provide a track with its historic identity,” said Rose Mary Williams, the director of racing at Mountaineer. “It’s also a big boost if a track can offer stakes and other races on the grass as well as on the dirt. At Mountaineer, we’ve long had that variety.”

Mountaineer’s one-mile dirt oval has been in use since the northern panhandle track opened on May 19, 1951. Races on its seven-furlong turf course debuted on June 19, 1958.

The first two black-type on this year’s schedule, the Independence Day and Firecracker Stakes, will be run on July 2. Both carry $75,000 purses, and both will be carded at the one-mile distance on the grass.

Turf races also fortify a track’s day-to-day offerings. They can feature impressive performances, too. On May 26, the 7-year-old gelding Photo Shoot won a seven-furlong allowance on the Mountaineer grass in a time of 1:21.12.

Jockey Luis Raul Rivera was aboard – the twosome returned $7.60 for two-dollar win tickets to bettors who backed them. Somewhat surprisingly, it was Photo Shoot’s first victory in 11 career efforts on the grass. He had never raced at Mountaineer before, and he will likely make a return.

Mountaineer annually cards a “turf marathon” series, which includes five races for starter allowance horses. The first is scheduled for June 11, and will be run at the one-mile and 70-yard distance.

Distances of the marathon races will increase chronologically, with the finale being run at 2 miles on Labor Day. Other grass events are scheduled to continue at Mountaineer through Sept. 30.

It’s the stakes races, though, that most notably define a track and lure the most noteworthy competitors. Recent renewals of the West Virginia Derby have lured winners of the Kentucky Derby, Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, although none of them have been victorious at Mountaineer.

Stakes can also be the means for the state’s Thoroughbred industry to showcase its best in open company. Russell Road, a gelding bred in West Virginia, won last year’s Independence Day Stakes at Mountaineer, and was also victorious (via a disqualification) in the Robert C. Byrd Memorial on the West Virginia Derby undercard.

To date, Russell Road has accumulated 20 career stakes victories. His career purse earnings total in excess of $1.65 million. Russell Road’s most recent effort was a 3-length score in allowance company at Mountaineer on May 11. He’s primed and ready for more stakes competition this summer.

NOTES: Deshawn L. Parker, sidelined the past few weeks with a hairline fraction of the collarbone, will return to riding on Wednesday. He has been named on three horses on the Mountaineer card – Hardrocker in the first race, Thomas Jefferson in the second and My Boy Angie in the third … Through Sunday, the average payoff for a two-dollar win wager at Mountaineer this season was $10.83. Payoffs for two-dollar perfecta wagers had averaged $61.21.