CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. -- John Casey is hunched over, his blue T-shirt soaked, tacking a shoe on a little bay claimer.
One more horse needs to be shod in this patched-up old barn at Charles Town Race Course, and then he is off to Saratoga, summer playground of the sporting rich.
It's about 400 miles to the historic spa, but for this 31-year-old blacksmith, it could be the most extraordinary excursion of his life.
Casey's horse, Coin Collector, is third choice tomorrow in the $100,000 Saratoga Special, a race drawing an eight-horse field, including one entry. The stakes for 2-year-olds will be simulcast as the ninth race at Laurel Friday.
Almost 20 years ago, a fellow by the name of Harrison Johnson embarked from the leaky roof circuit at Charles Town on a similar Saratoga junket. He loaded an obscure gelding named Gusty O'Shay in his two-horse trailer, drove to New York, and in one of racing's classic Cinderella stories, beat some of the finest Kentucky-bred 2-year-olds owned by the country's wealthiest sportsmen in the Hopeful Stakes.
It is a feat Casey hopes to emulate tomorrow when his West Virginia-bred gelding takes on several millionaire-owned colts in the Special. Among the field is Caller I.D., the 8-5 favorite, owned and trained by Stanley Hough. Caller I.D. won his first start at Belmont Park, but then tired and finished third to Salt Lake in the Tremont Stakes. The entry of Treasure Man and Silver Drums, ship-ins from Philadelphia Park, is the second choice. Treasure Man was second in the Tremont. Casey got a lucky break when the owners of Salt Lake, early leader among the nation's juveniles, decided to skip tomorrow's race.
Coin Collector is undefeated in two starts, winning the two races by a combined total of 21 lengths. In each instance, he came close to breaking track records at Laurel and Charles Town.
"A working guy like me, he can't afford to own a horse like this," Casey said. He has had offers, one as high as $300,000, for the gelding, he said. But he has turned them down.
"I want to run once in New York," he said. "I want to have some fun. Then, who knows? Maybe I will sell him."
The Coin Collector story revolves around Casey and his close-knit family, which includes his dad, James W. Casey, a trainer at Charles Town; and his brother, James M. Casey, a trainer at Laurel.
His dad, retired as athletic director of James Wood High School in Winchester, Va., started raising and racing horses as a sideline about 35 years ago.
The elder Casey started out with one broodmare. He now owns and trains nearly 100 horses. About four years ago, planning to take advantage of a new West Virginia breeding program, he bought a stallion prospect from one of the oil-rich Maktoum brothers.
Casey bought the horse, named Weshaam, sight unseen. "I paid $25,000 for him," he said. "The Maktoums had raced Weshaam in Europe, where he had only moderate success on the grass, then shipped him to [trainer] Neil Drysdale at Santa Anita to race on the dirt. The horse bowed a tendon. I had heard about him from a bloodstock agent. Weshaam is sired by Fappiano and was destined to go to Australia. But the Australians didn't come up with the money, so I got him."
The elder Casey bred Weshaam to several of his mares. John bred him to one of his stakes-placed mares, Dynamo Dotty, that he had leased on a foal-sharing deal with Dudley Skinker, a Marylander.
The resulting foal from the Weshaam-Dynamo Dotty mating is Coin Collector. So far, he is Weshaam's first starter, and first winner.
"Mr. Skinker named him that because he collects coins," the elder Casey said. But John became the sole owner of the colt, which he later gelded, he said, "because we just don't have the facilities to handle colts. We geld most everything."
John, who shoes for most of the big outfits at Charles Town, has his own small farm about six miles from the track. He broke Coin Collector there and trained him himself after sending him to the track last Christmas.
"I treated him just like a a regular horse," John said. "I even used to trail ride him."
But when the horse started his speed workouts, Casey knew he had something special. "Before we ran him the first time, we worked him against our old West Virginia stakes horse, Taylor Mountain," he said. "He beat him, and we knew we had a runner."
Coin Collector broke his maiden by 10 lengths in his first start on June 8, running 4 1/2 furlongs in 52 1/5 seconds at Charles Town. Then on July 7, the Caseys tried him in the $30,000 Primer Stakes at Laurel.
He won by 11 lengths, running 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03 4/5. Each time he was two-fifths of a second off the track record set by older horses.
"I know people think we are in over our heads in the Saratoga Special," the elder Casey said of tomorrow's race, which is six furlongs. "But, then again, people thought we were in over our heads at Laurel, too." Runner-up to Coin Collector at Laurel was Hippomenes, already a stakes winner, who recently had been sold for $125,000.
A week before the Laurel stakes, John turned the training of his horse over to his brother, Jim, at Laurel. "We sent him to Maryland largely because of the safety factor," their father said. "Here [at Charles Town] if he works five-eighths, it's around two turns. At Laurel, it's just around one turn. We also get a lot of loose horses on our track up here which can prove hazardous. The exercise people are a little better in Maryland."
The elder Casey thinks Coin Collector, who stands about 16.1 hands, will be able to carry his speed past sprint distances. "He's got the 3 L's," he explained. "He's long, leggy and lean.
"We know he's got the speed. Now, we'll see if he's got the class."