Justify may have left the barn, but Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is rarely without capable reserves when it comes to three-year-olds. Once On Whiskey happens to be one of those, and the son of Bodemeister will look to give Baffert his fourth victory in the $500,000 West Virginia Derby (G3) on Saturday at Mountaineer Park.
Sent away at 7-1 in last month’s Los Alamitos Derby (G3) following a disappointing third in a Kentucky Derby Day allowance at Churchill, Once On Whiskey overcame slow beginning to nail Draft Pick in the final strides by a head in his stakes debut. Baffert’s three previous West Virginia Derby winners were Concord Point (2010), Prayer for Relief (2011), and Cupid (2016).
Draft Pick, who took the Affirmed (G3) over subsequent Indiana Derby (G3) winner Axelrod two back, renews rivalry with Once on Whisky here and breaks from post 2 for trainer Peter Euerton.
Also lining up for the second time in a row are the top three finishers from last month’s Iowa Derby (G3). High North gutted out the victory by a half-length over stakes-debuting Mr Freeze, with Lionite a length adrift in third. It was the second stakes win on the season for High North, who also landed the Northern Spur at Oaklawn in April.
Mr Freeze might have the most upside of the trio as he was only making his third career start in that Prairie Meadows fixture. Trainer Dale Romans won the West Virginia Derby in 2006 with Bright One, while Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Lionite, has won this race five times since 2005.
Rugbyman, a narrowly-beaten second in the $150,000 Easy Goer on the Belmont Stakes undercard, also features prominently despite a distant fourth in the Dwyer (G3) last time.
The stakes-laden afternoon card at Mountaineer also includes the $200,000 West Virginia Governor’s Cup (G3) for older horses at 1 1/16 miles.
Grade 3 winners Matrooh and Hawaakom finished third and fourth, respectively, in the Stephen Foster H. (G1) in June, while Leofric, second to Hawaakom in the Razorback H. (G3) in February, enters off an allowance win at Prairie Meadows for Brad Cox, who also saddles former California mainstay and Grade 3 scorer Term of Art.
Ben Ali (G3) victor Rated R Superstar was most recently fifth in the Pimlico Special (G3) in the slop. Two-time Charles Town Classic (G2) hero Imperative trailed a field of four in the Philip H. Iselin (G3) in late June following 14 months on the shelf , while Secret Passage is two-for-three since joining the Robertino Diodoro stable.