(Originally published in the October 22, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
Carol Holden recalled a fall day in 1986 when she and partner Sam Huff traveled to Laurel Park for the inaugural Maryland Million. The championship day for state-bred racehorses was the first of its kind.
“We were driving back from Maryland, and Sam said, ‘We’re going to do that in West Virginia,’ ” Holden said.
They immediately set to work on developing what would become the West Virginia Breeders Classics. Remarkably, the first Breeders Classic program was held less than a year later, in September 1987. The event celebrated 25 years Oct. 15 at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
“We had no expectations,” Holden said. “We were clueless in getting the first one done. We actually had about three months to put it together.”
The first Breeders Classics in the pre-casino days at Charles Town featured only five races, with the main event—the Jim Beam Breeders’ Classic—worth $100,000. It was won by Charles Woodson Jr. and Donald Wilson’s Onion Juice, one of the most popular horses in the history of Charles Town Races.
The Classics has grown to nine races worth roughly $1.3 million, though in 2009 purses totaled a record $2 million.
Huff, the Hall of Fame pro football player for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins and a longtime Thoroughbred breeder and owner, had worked for Marriott Corp. and was able to land sponsors quickly for the Breeders Classics. Many of the stakes in the series are still sponsored today.
Huff and Holden linked a series of events to the races, including a gala, a golf tournament, and the “Breakfast of Champions,” which raises money for charities and draws former Redskins greats. This year’s breakfast drew about 300 people, including some of Huff’s former teammates, who, like himself, now call the games.
“Carol and I have been working on this a long time,” said Huff, who along with Holden has a weekly radio show based in nearby Middleburg, Va. “This couldn’t have taken place without Carol Holden, my partner and my friend.
“Sometimes it’s like a dream come true, just unbelievable.”
There were a few rough spots, notably in 1995, when the Classics had to move to Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in West Virginia because of issues at Charles Town, which closed for a period before winning county approval to install video lottery terminals. The featured Classic that year was won by Cavada, the only filly or mare thus far to beat the boys in the race.
The Classics has grown along with the West Virginia Thoroughbred breeding and racing program, which has benefited from revenue from VLTs and table games at racetracks. Early on, the Classics was funded by money from un-cashed pari-mutuel tickets; now the West Virginia Racing Commission each year approves a VLT revenue expenditure for the purses.
“It’s significant not only because of the horse racing but because of the contribution (breeding) makes to the local and state economy,” WVRC chairman Joe Smith said. “Many people have contributed to the success of the program.”
Longtime West Virginia breeder Randy Funkhouser of O’Sullivan Farms said the Breeders Classics has been a key component of the breeding industry, which is based in Jefferson County, where Charles Town is located.
“I can remember Sam and me talking about how we needed a showcase event for West Virginia-breds, and this has done that,” Funkhouser said. “I don’t believe people on the national level realize we’re breeding some serious horses here in West Virginia. It has done so much for the breeding program.”
Mark Russell, who owns Russell Road, winner of this year’s $450,000 West Virginia Breeders’ Classic, said Huff and Holden have done a service to the Thoroughbred industry in the state. He said the state-bred championship night offers a look at how the program has grown.
“As each year goes by, the competition gets stronger and stronger,” Russell said.
Much has changed since 1987. As part of opening ceremonies Oct. 15, Holden looked back 25 years. She noted that a gallon of gas cost 89 cents and Ronald Reagan was president.
“There have been enormous changes at Charles Town and in West Virginia,” Holden said. “Even in 2011, the (breeding program and Classics) may be one of the best examples of Ronald Reagan’s ‘trickle down economics’ theory.”
Though Huff is heavy into Redskins football, he takes a lot of pride in being founder of the Classics and participating in Thoroughbred racing and breeding.
“I have to admit I never thought we’d get past the first one,” Huff said. “But it’s a pleasure to be here, because this is what it’s all about—West ‘by God’ Virginia.”