02/01/2007 1:00AM

Awesome Gem a late-running treat


ARCADIA, Calif. - Now that Lava Man has made a swift and sure return to the races, the spotlight shifts to Saturday's Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, where Horse of the Year Invasor makes his first start of the season. These are the grown-ups, the elephants in the room, and anyone who wants to make an impact will need to deal with them eventually.

Awesome Gem, a son of Breeders' Cup Classic winner Awesome Again, has the look of a horse who might give them a run. His victory in the San Fernando Stakes at Santa Anita in January was an efficient, no-frills piece of business, accomplished over the talented but erratic Midnight Lute and good old Brother Derek, who ran hard but is still trying to recapture the winning glow of early 2006.

Even more to the point, Awesome Gem seems to enjoy the last part of his races more than the first. In an American racing world of high octane from the start, complete with staggering final furlongs, the emergence of an unruffled stretch-runner is a treat. Whatever the pace to the half-mile mark, Awesome Gem seems content to live in his own little world, answering only to the signal of Tyler Baze when it's time to make his move.

That's what he did in the San Fernando, and that is what he will need to do again on Saturday at Santa Anita when he meets Midnight Lute, Brother Derek, and Arson Squad in the $300,000 Strub Stakes at 1 1/8 miles. He will have plenty of support at the windows, as well as a host of fans in the stands, courtesy of his owners, a nine-share syndicate that flies the banner of West Point Thoroughbreds. Among Awesome Gem's owners is Air Force officer Daniel Higgins, just back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Based in New Jersey, the West Point syndicate is the brainchild of Terry Finley, a West Point grad and former Army ranger who has structured the company with military precision along strict regional lines. Among the most familiar recent West Point runners are such stakes-class horses as Flashy Bull, High Finance, and Yolanda B. Too.

West Point's man in California is Jeffrey Bloom, executive vice president of West Coast operations. Bloom and Awesome Gem both joined the West Point organization at the 2005 Barretts sale of 2-year-olds in Pomona. Awesome Gem cost $150,000. Bloom, a former jockey who has transitioned successfully into the business world, declined to reveal his price.

"I loved being a rider," said Bloom, who is 43. "The only thing I regret is that I seemed to make nothing but horrible management decisions from a career standpoint. Then in 1989 or '90, I went down in a spill at Hollywood Park, and that essentially made the decision for me to retire. I busted up a bunch of ribs, broke my wrist, my ankle, and hurt my back pretty bad. It was going to take so long for everything to heal that I just decided to go back to school and start my life over again."

At the time, Bloom was also in high demand as a morning work rider, particularly for the top-class stables of Charlie Whittingham and Eddie Gregson. Among the runners Bloom worked at one time or another were Ruhlmann, Goodbye Halo, Super Diamond, and a 2-year-old trained by Whittingham named Sunday Silence.

"Ruhlmann was a fun horse to work," recalled Bloom, referring to the 1990 Santa Anita Handicap winner. "He was like sitting on a fast train full of dynamite. The only thing Charlie ever told me was to work him as slow as I could."

As for Sunday Silence, there was no hiding his potential.

"I remember telling Pat [Valenzuela] to stick with that colt," Bloom said. "He would win the Kentucky Derby."

Bloom went on to earn a bachelor's degree in financial services from San Diego State University, then stepped outside racing long enough to put his education to work in the corporate world. His heart never strayed far from the game, though, and he kept his hand in by working for the Del Mar media department and co-hosting "The Thoroughbred Connection," a radio show with John Hernandez.

In his role with West Point, Bloom finds himself back in the saddle aboard young talent.

"After we acquire our babies, when they come back into training, I'll try to jump on each of them at least once," Bloom said. "Awesome Gem was a horse I wanted no part of getting on frequently, because he could be a real madman. But the interesting thing is, that when he's in his stall he's as gentle as a kitten, and in his races, he's been all business."

Trained by Craig Dollase, Awesome Gem did not make it to the races until July of his 3-year-old season - more than a year after his purchase - primarily due to the removal of a bone chip in an ankle. Since then, he has proceeded on an upward trajectory, with 3 wins and 3 close seconds in his last 6 starts.

"You're always high on a horse like Awesome Gem, but sometimes they take awhile to produce it on the track," Bloom said. "Part of our approach is that you can't dictate the horse's schedule. If you allow them, they will give you their full potential. It's pretty exciting that this horse might take us to the big show."