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Longacres Mile stirs up memories
For the past 74 years, it has been the pinnacle of Thoroughbred racing in the Pacific Northwest. On Sunday, the horses will again thunder around the dirt track at Emerald Downs for the 75th running of the $250,000 Longacres Mile, the region's most prestigious and popular race.
First run in 1935 at the now-defunct Longacres track in Renton, the event was a sensation from the very beginning, creating lasting memories in the minds of the trainers and jockeys who were fortunate enough to have participated in the race.
Trainer Jim Penny has the distinction of winning more miles, five, than any other trainer. It all began in 1973, when Penney got his first Longacres win with Silver Mallet, ridden by Larry Pierce. He also won with Theologist in 1977, Edneator in 2000, Sabertooth in 2002 and Flamethrowingtexan in 2006.
Long before winning his first Mile, Penney said he was enamored with the big race.
“When I was a kid, I came to the races with my grandfather after cherry-picking season,” said Penney, who will saddle Gallon in this year’s race. “I didn’t realize at the time, the importance or magnitude of the race. It wasn’t until Two and Twenty won (in 1950), then I realized it. At first, I didn’t realize that they shipped horses from all over to race in it.”
Penney lays the success of the race squarely on the shoulders of Longacres’ co-dounder Joseph Gottstein.
“When Joe Gottstein initiated the race, he put up a purse of $10,000. And that blew everybody’s minds,” Penney said. “Joe Gottstein knew how to put on a show. He was a showman and wanted an attraction that would draw national fame. And he did that, and it has carried on through until now.”
Penney said the appeal goes beyond the spectacle for him.
“So much planning goes into a race like that – the preparation of the horse and the strategy of the race,” he said. “It’s like going to the World Series.”
Trainer Howard Belvoir’s first memories of the Mile are a bit hazy.
“It’s been so long. I don’t really remember,” he said. “The first time I really remember is probably the year Miracle Escort won (1957).”
A little fresher in his mind is his first entry into the Mile, Red Eye Express, who raced against Silver Mallet in 1973.
“I remember my first horse in the Mile, who may or may not have deserved to be there,” he said. “He didn’t do that good, finished sixth or seventh.”
Red Eye Express improved the following year, capturing second in the 1974 Mile.
Even fresher in his mind are the past two Miles, both of which were won by Belvoir-trained steeds.
In 2008, Belvoir got his first win with Wasserman, ridden by jockey Jennifer Whitaker, the first woman to ride a Mile champion. In 2009, Belvoir again captured the Mile with Assessment, ridden by Gallyn Mitchell. Both horses will vie for the title this year.
“There is only one (Mile) a year, and it’s the biggest race in the area, along with the Derby (the Emerald Derby),” Belvoir said. “And I’ve been lucky enough to win them both. The Mile is just prestigious. They’ve been doing it for 75 years now, and I’ve been lucky enough to win two.”
Gallyn Mitchell also has been lucky enough to win two.
In 2000, the Emerald Downs’ all-time leading rider in wins, teamed up with Penney to capture his first Mile aboard Edneator. Last season he repeated the feat, this time coming from the outside No. 12 hole on the Belvoir-trained Assessment to take the Mile.
For Mitchell, one name is synonymous with the Mile.
“My memory of the Mile is Gary Baze because he’s won it the most,” the Enumclaw jockey said.
Baze won five Miles, beginning in 1980 when he snagged his first aboard Trooper Seven. Baze repeated the feat in 1981, again aboard Trooper Seven. He would win again in 1985, 1987 and 1993.
“When I was an apprentice I remember him always winning it, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Mitchell said.
“It’s (the Mile) a pretty big deal, especially up here you get horses and riders from everywhere,” he said. "It’s our biggest race and to ride it is one thing. It’s neat. But to win it is really special.”
Mitchell again will ride Assessment in the Mile on Sunday, looking to follow Baze to become just the second jockey to repeat as the Mile winner on the same horse.
Trainer Tim McCanna, the Emerald Downs’ all-time leader in wins as a trainer, remembers first watching the Mile in his hometown of Spokane.
“My earliest memory was at the old Playfair racetrack watching Chinook Pass take them wire-to-wire (in 1983),” said McCanna, Emerald Downs' nine-time leading trainer.
And although he’s won just about everything else at Emerald Downs, the Mile has eluded him.
“I had a couple of shots with Poker Brad (in 2003), ran a second, but just couldn’t get there,” McCanna said.
On Sunday, McCanna will look to snag the Mile with Jersey Town, a 4-year-old ridden by longtime McCanna cohort Kevin Krigger. Although Jersey Town only has eight career starts so far, the colt has fared well, finishing first or second in seven outings, including the 2009 British Columbia Derby.
For McCanna, he’s hoping that Jersey Town will be the horse to earn him his first Mile win.
“It’s a race I grew up watching as a kid,” he said, "and I want it bad."
This story was written by Shawn Skager, firstname.lastname@example.org.