CHESTER, W.Va. -- Soul Warrior pulled a stunning upset Saturday in the 40th running of the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park, surging past a weary Big Drama while outfinishing Mine That Bird in the final furlong.
With local jockey Dale Beckner picking up the mount from an absent Miguel Mena, who missed his flight from Saratoga earlier in the day, Soul Warrior returned $48 after finishing a neck before Big Drama. Mine That Bird, the Kentucky Derby winner, was another 1 1/2 lengths back in a field of six 3-year-olds.
The West Virginia Derby victory was the third in the last five years for the reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer, Steve Asmussen. He was at Saratoga on Saturday and won the Jim Dandy there with Kensei only minutes after the West Virginia Derby.
Speed horses dominated throughout the afternoon at Mountaineer, and Big Drama, with Eibar Coa riding, opened a huge lead and appeared all set to go wire to wire in the West Virginia Derby. But on the far turn of the 1 1/8-mile race, Mine That Bird and Soul Warrior began drawing closer, and it was Soul Warrior who pulled out the victory in the desperate final yards.
"The way the racetrack played all day, whoever made the lead was winning," said Mike Smith, the rider of Mine That Bird.
Smith said he felt compelled to keep the late-running gelding closer to the pace than usual.
"Mine That Bird doesn't want to run that way," said Smith. "I used too much of him on the backside."
Soul Warrior, eligible for second-level allowances, is owned by the Zayat Stables LLC. The Lion Heart colt has won 3 of 7 starts and he earned $457,500 after finishing 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.46 over a fast track.
Asmussen said Soul Warrior earned the victory.
"He was kind of pinned down in there," he said from Saratoga. "Mine That Bird ran up to him as early as the half-mile pole and he just kept trying. What a very good effort for that horse."
After the top three, the order of finish was Awesome Rhythm, Sunday Sunrise, and Monty's Best.
Big Drama was a narrow favorite at 4-5 over Mine That Bird (9-10). The pair are expected to go next in Grade 1 races on Aug. 29 at Saratoga, with Mine That Bird pointing to the $1 million Shadwell Travers at 1 1/4 miles and Big Drama going in the $300,000 King's Bishop at seven furlongs.
- additional reporting by David Grening