Hundreds of furlongs from West Virginia's depressed coal fields, thoroughbred breeders boosted by a lucrative state incentive are quietly gaining ground in U.S. horse racing.

West Virginia has made strides by diverting most of its parimutuel taxes for cash bonuses to reward breeders.

"The stallions they {West Virginians} are bringing in are better, the mares are better and the breeders are now starting to compete on a regional level, not just a state level," said Richard Wilcke, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association.

The West Virginia Thoroughbred Development Fund last year distributed $2 million to about 400 breeders, said Joseph Cuomo, director of audits for the state racing commission. The fund was financed with a share of the 4 percent parimutuel tax at Charles Town. The state cut its share to 0.4 percent of the handle in winter and 0.7 percent in summer, giving the rest to the breeders fund.

The awards go to owners of horses foaled, sired or domiciled in the state as yearlings who win at Charles Town Races, the state's main track.

Breeding has blossomed from a cottage industry into an economic force in a state dependent on coal.

Saturday, West Virginia's best will be showcased at the annual West Virginia Breeders Classics at Charles Town, a nine-race card offering $305,000 in purses.

In 1984, the state had five active stallions standing. Now it has 80, said Millard Harrell, fund administrator. The number of West Virginia-bred horses registered with The Jockey Club, the official registry of thoroughbreds in North America, has skyrocketed from 400 to 2,200 in the same period, he said.

The number of foals in West Virginia has increased 350 percent since 1981, said Carol Holden, executive director of West Virginia Breeders Classic Inc.

"The development fund is the greatest thing that's happened here," said breeder Donald Boyer of Mar-Doc Farm in Charles Town, home of stallions Cool Joe and Cortan. "With the money that's in that program, every breeder's got a shot at picking up some extra dollars. We're getting to the point now where we {West Virginia breeders} have some that can compete."

"A few years ago, if you went somewhere with a Charles Town horse, it was like, 'Oh, they've got a Charles Town horse.' But we're starting to get some respect."