Although he is now just a fan instead of a football star, Sam Huff still loves big events. He never misses a Kentucky Derby, because the sheer spectacle of the event appeals to him so much. "I enjoy it as much as the Super Bowl," he said.
Huff sensed that special big event feeling when he attended the inaugural running of the Maryland Million at Laurel last fall. He enjoyed that day of races for Maryland-sired horses so much that he wondered if his home state of West Virginia might be able to do the same thing.
This might have seemed a far-fetched notion, for West Virginia's racing and breeding industry is a modest one, compared to Maryland's. Yet Huff's idea will become a reality tonight. Charles Town will be the site of the first West Virginia Breeders Classic, consisting of four $25,000 stakes plus the first $100,000 race in the track's history.
Huff has been involved in racing on a small scale in the last few years. He owns a share in a Kentucky stallion; a piece of a Maryland-based racehorse, Marco Island; and a couple of mares in West Virginia. But just as ABC sportscaster Jim McKay got deeply involved in the game by conceiving and creating the Maryland Million, Huff was fired by enthusiasm for the Breeders Classic.
"I thought the Maryland Million was one of the greatest days of racing I've ever seen," Huff said. "They just put on a great show. So when we tried to do the same thing in West Virginia, we copied their whole program."
Huff sought and received guidance from officials in Maryland. He laid out his idea to the owners of Charles Town and to Harry Buch, chairman of the West Virginia Racing Commission. It was Buch who gave him a great boost. If Huff could get commercial sponsorship for the races, Buch said, the state would put up matching funds. (The money would come from uncashed mutuel tickets, revenue that usually goes straight into the state coffers.)
"When I heard that," Huff recalled, "I said, 'We're off and running!' So I went out to try to sell the idea to corporations."
Huff had the same advantage in West Virginia that McKay had in Maryland. His name opened doors to executive offices that a lesser-known racing official wouldn't have been able to penetrate. He got the Jim Beam Distillery to sponsor the richest race. Anheuser-Busch, Oscar Mayer, the West Virginia Lottery and local financial institutions also signed on as sponsors.
The $100,000 Jim Beam Classic, for 3-year-olds and up at a mile and one eighth, has drawn nine entrants. The favorite probably will be Bob's Boomer, a 9-year-old gelding who rose from the claiming ranks to win the first stake of his career at Penn National last month. His principal competition may come from Famous Comic, who has had much success at the Charles Town track.
These are not high-class horses, for the West Virginia breeding industry does not produce the quality of thoroughbreds that the Maryland Million can draw. But this hardly matters; for Charles Town, this is going to be a memorable occasion.
"It seems the only time West Virginia ever gets mentioned in the news is when there is some tragedy," said Huff, who played college football at West Virginia University. "But on Friday night we're expecting a crowd of 12-15,000. The governor is coming. The trophy is bigger than the Kentucky Derby's. It's going to be first class."