CHESTER - Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort is 30 miles west of Pittsburgh, where Bill Mazeroski hit the home run and Franco Harris made the immaculate reception. The unexpected has a history of happening within the sporting world in these parts, and it was in full form in Saturday's 43rd running of the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby.
The winner was Macho Macho, from Steve Asmussen stable. Macho Macho closed strongly on the outside in deep stretch to prevail by a half-length. Ridden by Corey Nakatani, Macho Macho, second choice in the wagering at 9-2, clocked a final time for the 1 1/8-mile event of 1:49.08. It was the fastest for the West Virginia Derby in the past nine years.
Bourbon Courage, a 5-1 shot under Mountaineer perennial leading jockey DeShawn Parker, closed strongly on the rail to finish second. Called to Serve, a Southern California challenger ridden by Daniel Centeno, finished a half-length farther back in third.
Jockey Corey Nakatani rides Macho Macho to the finish during Saturday’s West Virginia Derby.
And Hansen, who was the prohibitive 3-5 favorite in both the morning line and at post time, came in a fading fourth. It wasn't anywhere near a whopper of an upset. Marc Patterson, Mountaineer's assistant racing secretary, picked Macho Macho to win on Mountaineer's handicapping show.
What was shocking is that Hansen, North America's reigning juvenile male champ and the only Grade 1 winner in the field, finished unplaced. He had immediately gone to the front at the start, and clocked a pace-setting :24.33 for the opening quarter, :47.33 for the half, 1:11.23 for three-quarters and 1:36.75. But his lead at each of those junctures was only a head,
"He was pressured most of the way (largely by Louisiana Derby winner Hero of Order), and it just wasn't his day," said Hansen, jockey Mike Smith, in the race's aftermath. Smith wasn't in a talkative mood, but he did add that when he asked Hansen for more inside the eighth-pole the answer was, "No."
A grand total of $237,098 was wagered in the Mountaineer show poll. And $196,232 of it was on Hansen. This resulted in some odd pari-mutuel payoffs. Macho Macho returned $11.60, $5.60 and $11 across the board. Bourbon Courage returned $6.60 to place and $15.40 to show. Called to Serve returned a show price of $23.
Completing the order were Hero or Order, Penn's Grant, Macho Bull, Z Camelot and Le Bernardin. Morgan's Guerilla, a stable mate of Hansen, was scratched on race day. All-sources wagering for the nine-race card, comprised entirely of open stakes, was $2,0996,173.
The victory by Macho Macho was the fourth in the West Virginia Derby for Asmussen, extending what already had been a record total for trainers in the event. Assistant Darren Fleming handled saddling chores for Asmussen, as he did with his three prior winners, Real Dandy, Zanjero and Soul Warrior..
"The plan was to allow (Hero of Order and Hansen) to commit early," said Nakatani. He further suggested that Eddie Martin, Jr., aboard Hero of Order, did exactly as expected. Smith, in response, had no choice but to push early.
Seven years ago, Real Dandy closed from last in an 11-horse field to win the West Virginia Derby. Five years ago, Zanjero closed from mid-pack to win. Three years ago, Soul Warrior trailed by 12 lengths before engaging his closing kick.
Macho Macho came to Mountaineer with a similar pre-race profile to Soul Warrior. Both had made six prior starts. Both had finished second in their most recent efforts, which were in relatively minor stakes. Both were primed for bigger efforts. And both engaged their best career efforts to date in the West Virginia Derby.
And how about Bourbon Courage? Trainer Kellyn Gorder had him primed for a huge run, and he delivered one under Parker. "He really tried," Parker said. "Inside the eighth-pole, he had to go through a little hole on the rail, and Bourbon Courage didn't hesitate to do it. I thought we had it. But Cory's horse had a little bit more. And Asmussen's a tough man to beat anywhere."
The winner's share of the purse was $435,750. The colt's owner Jerry Durant was not at Mountaineer. Fleming had no thoughts about when and where Macho Macho might race next.
Hansen was the fourth horse to come to the West Virginia Derby with a Grade 1 win on his resume. The others were Hal's Hope in 2000, Dominican in 2007 and Mine That Bird in 2009. As a group, they've gone zero-for-four at Mountaineer. One never really knows until the starting gate opens.