08/11/2009 11:00PM

Belvoir again a serious Mile player

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AUBURN, Wash. - August isn't Howard Belvoir Appreciation Month. Not officially, anyway.

But Belvoir, a veteran of nearly five decades on the West Coast racing scene, has done some of his best work in this very month, culminating last summer when Wasserman - owned, bred, and trained by Belvoir - won the Grade 3, $300,000 Longacres Mile, and Assessment, also trained by Belvoir, finished fourth.

Here's where the appreciation comes in. If it's hard to get one horse to Emerald Downs' only graded stakes race, and doubly hard to get two, what are the chances of getting both to the Mile in consecutive years? Belvoir would complete that rare double Sunday if Wasserman and Assessment start as scheduled in the 74th renewal.

A victory would open the doors to a select club - only four trainers have won the Mile in consecutive years, and none since Laurie Anderson at Longacres in 1982-83.

Belvoir, 65, has approached Sunday's race with a calm that might be mistaken for nonchalance, but inside, the fires no doubt are burning. He wants this one.

"Everybody's dying to win it," he said after Mile entries were taken Wednesday morning. "You can't help it. The greatest thing, really, is having your silks painted on the statue in the paddock. Around here, the Longacres Mile is everyone's dream."

Wasserman, winless in six starts this year and a probable longshot Sunday, will carry 116 pounds. He will be ridden by Jennifer Whitaker, Belvoir's longtime assistant and exercise rider and the only woman to ride a Mile winner. Loyalty is a Belvoir strong suit, and Whitaker has been with him for about 20 years, staying on even after a broken relationship with Belvoir's son Vann.

"Jen has been a good hand, she works hard every day," Belvoir said. "We've had a few arguments, and she makes a few mistakes. But they're honest mistakes, and everybody makes those. People have asked me if I've been tempted to change riders on Wasserman, and I always say, 'Why?' "

Assessment, a two-time stakes winner at the meeting and the leading local hope in a field topped by California shippers, will be ridden by Gallyn Mitchell, who has the call only because Whitaker can't ride both.

Raised in Payette, Idaho, Belvoir fell into racing at age 13 after his father, a used-car salesman, bought a Thoroughbred from local horseman Herb Taylor. Belvoir learned the training ropes from Taylor's sons, Troy, Roy, and J.D. He married their sister, Mary, took out his first trainer's license in 1963 at Vancouver's Exhibition Park, and embarked on his life's work.

Belvoir migrated to Longacres in 1964 and was part of the furniture for the next 28 seasons. His first Mile horse, the crack sprinter Red Eye Express, finished second to Times Rush in 1974. While he has won scores of stakes races - including 24 at Emerald - a Mile victory eluded him until last August, when Wasserman rallied from the back to nail Canadian champion True Metropolitan and race favorite Tropic Storm on the wire. The victory was greeted warmly by fans and foes alike.

"He's just a great horseman, and a wonderful person," said Harley Hoppe, who owned Red Eye Express and has been with Belvoir ever since. "He's got that marvelous horse, Wasserman, and every day when he gets to the barn, the first thing he does is pet Wasserman on the head, and the horse knows it. He knows Howard's there."

Belvoir and his wife divorced in the late 1990s. Their oldest son, Heath, works for Equibase calling race charts in Texas. Vann, the leading jockey at Emerald in 1996, is now one of the track's leading trainers. Youngest son Clay owns a few horses but has a life outside of racing: He works for the Boeing Company.

Belvoir lives in Auburn, not far from Emerald Downs, with his partner, Vicki Potter. She works in group sales at Emerald, and the couple is all but inseparable on race days. Those close to him say the venerable trainer has mellowed in his golden years.

"He's changed a lot," Vann Belvoir said. "When we were younger, he seemed a lot more serious, but now he's more relaxed, he enjoys life more, and he loves the grandkids. He's lightened up a lot."

Belvoir said his strength as a trainer is keeping horses sound. Wasserman and Assessment have started in each of the meeting's five stakes for older horses. They will enter Sunday's race in peak condition. If Assessment falters after starting from the 12 hole, he's always got Wasserman to pick up the pieces.

"My dad's a great horseman, one of the best," Vann Belvoir said. "He's got two good shots in the Mile. Everyone says Wasserman isn't on his game, but he's a big-time player. He'll show up, no matter what, and I think the pace will be fast. Don't be surprised if Wasserman wins it."