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Nations: Huff has passion for horses

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- Mention Jim Brown to professional football legend Sam Huff, and that old familiar gleam sparkles once more in his eyes.

Huff still maintains he cold-cocked Brown, the man he considers the greatest football player he's ever seen, with a hit so hard during a memorable 1958 matchup between Huff's New York Giants and the Brown-led Cleveland Browns that the NFL Hall-of-Fame running back was knocked unconscious. Brown denies that to this day, but Huff knows better.

"I knocked him out," Huff told one NFL fan attending Saturday's West Virginia Breeders Classics XXIII at Charles Town Races and Slots.

For a completely different side of the man once featured on network television for his punishing tackling ability (a 1960 CBS special titled "The Violent World of Sam Huff"), ask Huff to tell you about the deceased mare Bursting Forth.

A multiple graded stakes winner as a filly and later a broodmare for Huff's Middleburg-based Sporting Life Stable, Bursting Forth died several years ago while in foal. When Huff thinks about her, his most successful home-bred racehorse, he can get downright sentimental.

"She paid for our farm," Huff said of Bursting Forth, the granddaughter of 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Northern Dancer. "We lost her ... but I'll always remember her."

It's a side of Huff that rarely peeks through during his time in the booth alongside former teammate Sonny Jurgensen and Larry Michael as a radio broadcaster covering the Washington Redskins, the franchise with which he spent the final five seasons of his Hall-of-Fame career. Huff's genuine passion for football is legendary, but his love of horse racing runs just as deep.

Need proof? Look no further than Saturday night at Charles Town, where the 75-year-old native West Virginian gamely stood in the steady rain to award trophy after trophy to the winning owners during West Virginia Breeders Classics XXIII, the event he co-founded with longtime partner Carol Holden in 1987. The miserable weather be damned, Huff made certain he was in the winner's circle to pose for every picture, shake every hand, offer each an individual congratulation.

It's not that Huff is impervious to the elements, not now, not ever.

"Nobody likes playing in this kind of weather," Huff said. "The worst weather I ever played in was Green Bay when I was with the New York Giants. Twenty degrees below zero.

"You get used to weather. We're used to this. This is West Virginia weather. It's no different from most Octobers. We've had some good Octobers, but we've had a lot of them like this. We're used to changes. You live long enough in West Virginia, you're going to see a lot of changes."

Huff, son of a coal miner and brother to two more growing up in the company town of Edna Gas, W.Va., didn't spring forth in the midst of rolling pasture and picturesque racing stables. No, the horses Huff was most familiar with all through his school days and right up through his time as a standout at West Virginia University involved work, usually in front of a plow.

Not until Huff arrived in the Big Apple as the Giants' third-round draft choice in 1956 did he discover the allure of the racetrack. He was hooked from the start, and during his eight years with the Giants, Huff said he got to know all the jockeys at Belmont Park and Aqueduct.

Traded to the Redskins before the 1964 season, Huff switched jerseys and football allegiances but kept right on following horse racing.

Huff always thought Charles Town had the potential to become a first-rate destination track, enough so to put his faith in holding the initial West Virginia Breeders Classics there in 1987. He invested $75,000 with ESPN to broadcast what he hoped would become a showcase event for the Mountain State.

"This is a perfect location," Huff said. "You draw from Maryland, you draw from Virginia and West Virginia -- people from Winchester, Martinsburg, Shepherdstown -- this is a great location. And now they have great management here. It hasn't always been that way, but now we have great management and great races, and a great breeding program in West Virginia.

"We're kind of at the top of the horse-racing industry. We've turned it all over, and we're making it work."

It hasn't always been that way. Huff describes his first impression of Charles Town as "a pig sty," with terrible ownership and a combative core of horsemen who didn't like the ownership or him. Fed up with the constant bickering during one of the early years of the Classics, Huff simply had 100 racehorses loaded into trailers and hauled across the state to Mountaineer Race Track and held his state showcase there.

Those lean days are a distant memory now. Saturday's Classics boasted a record combined purse of $2 million in available prize money, plus a live broadcast through HRTV, as well as delayed broadcasts on ESPN and Comcast Sports. For all intents, the West Virginia Breeders Classics has arrived and evolved into the big-time event Huff dreamed about.

"When we first started, I never had any idea we could do it for 23 years," Huff said. "It seems like a long time, but when you're working in it, time goes fast. It's always been a goal to be bigger than the Maryland Million -- that was our guide, that's what we copied. But we've taken it another notch higher with West Virginia bred or sired horses. The Maryland Million is for sired only, so you're limiting yourself and they've never changed it."

"... How big can you get? I think just because of our track -- it's not the biggest track in the world, we don't have a grass course here [and] I wish we did, but we make due with what we have and that's what you have to do.

"On a night like tonight, we draw from everywhere because this is a national program. That's what we want. Can it grow any bigger? I don't think so. We're pretty happy with what we've got."


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