By Jeff Nations
I occasionally get asked about the biggest sporting event that I have ever covered during my career as a sports writer.
The easy answer, of course, is this: "Whatever I'm covering tonight."
That might not be exactly the truth, but it's the right frame of mind for any sports writer.
Really, though, I can think back to some of the higher-profile events I've written about over the years at various community newspapers in three states and sort of come up with a mental ranking.
In college, I took my first airplane flight to Durham, N.C., to cover Western Kentucky's men's basketball team take on then No. 1-ranked North Carolina in the preseason NIT. That was a big one, for certain.
I've done plenty of big-time college football and basketball games since, including former West Virginia University standout Kevin Pittsnogle's final home game. I've covered more than a few NFL games as well -- I was there for the soon-to-be legendary (or not) debut of then-heralded quarterback Tim Couch with the Cleveland Browns against the Tennessee Titans. I've covered the Ravens in Baltimore, and the Redskins in Washington.
But for sheer star power, I'd be hard-pressed to come up with anything to top the annual Charles Town Classic. That event, set for its fifth running in April at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in the nearby Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, already ranks in my mind as the Shenandoah Valley's single biggest sporting event of the year and is fast becoming nationally important for the thoroughbred racing industry.
Since its inaugural running in 2009, the Charles Town Classic has become West Virginia's first-ever graded stakes race (attaining Grade 3 status in 2011, then Grade 2 in 2012) and bumped up the total purse from a tiered-entry $1 total payout to the latest boost, a $1.5 million purse with a guaranteed $1 million going to the winner.
Consider -- the latest purse structure for the handicap division race puts the Charles Town Classic behind only the Dubai World Cup, the Breeders' Cup Classic and three races in Japan in terms of money available to its participants. That's right, the Charles Town Classic is the second-richest race for older horses (over 3 years old, the age set aside for horse racing's Triple Crown of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes).
It's not as if the money was bad before. That $1 million payout, plus the Classic's graded status, has already been enough to draw some serious talent to Charles Town, W.Va.
In the inaugural running in 2009, Whitney Handicap winner Commentator and Hollywood Gold Cup champion Mast Track shipped in for the big purse, but came up short as local favorite and Virginia-bred runner Researcher took home the victory in the 1 1/8-mile event.
Researcher repeated the next year, besting another stacked field that included multiple Grade 1 stakes winner Tizway.
In 2011 the Classic attained graded status, and the heavy hitters flocked to Charles Town's bullring track to try their luck. Eclipse Award finalists Duke of Mischief and Game on Dude finished 1-2 ahead of Tizway, and eventual 2011 Eclipse Champion Older Horse Acclamation also ran that night. It marked the only time all year that the three Eclipse Award finalists were on the same track, and also was the first time a non-Breeders' Cup race in the United States of 10 or more starters went to the gate with all entries having won graded stakes since the 2006 Arlington Million.
The Classic duplicated that all-graded winners feat in this year's race, as noted trainer Todd Pletcher's seven-year-old Caixa Eletronica pulled off another upset against a strong group that included Duke of Mischief and Tackleberry. Caixa Eletronica, contesting the distance for the first time, won in three lengths in 1:50.28.
With the latest purse boost, the field promises to only get tougher at Charles Town as more of the nation's top horses converge for a shot at big money in a little town in West Virginia.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>