08/12/2011 4:51PM

Emerald: Awesome Gem gives Longacres Mile star power


AUBURN, Wash. − The Awesome Gem barnstorming tour is coming to Emerald Downs. Southern California-based trainer Craig Dollase confirmed as much this week, committing his vagabond stable star to a start in the Grade 3, $200,000 Longacres Mile on Aug. 21.

This year’s edition of the Northwest’s only graded race already boasted considerable star power in Noosa Beach, the defending champion who has won seven consecutive stakes. But Awesome Gem pushes the Mile’s Q rating to another level.

An 8-year-old gelding, Awesome Gem has earned $2,578,270; when he breaks from the gate next Sunday, he will be the most successful horse ever to start at a Washington racetrack. Dollase said David Flores, one of the leading jockeys at Hollywood Park’s spring/summer meeting, will be along for the ride.

Awesome Gem has captured four graded stakes, placed in many others, and cashed checks from coast to coast and at several stops in between. He has competed at 13 tracks, with an ill-fated trip to Sha Tin for the 2008 Hong Kong Mile his most far-flung adventure; he finished 12th. Awesome Gem has won on grass, dirt, and synthetics. He can handle a sloppy track – he finished third behind Curlin the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park – or a lightning-fast strip like the one at Emerald Downs in 2009, when he finished a fast-closing second behind Assessment in the Mile as the 2-1 favorite.

Rather than stick to the circuit in Southern California, Dollase and owners West Point Thoroughbreds are always looking for new horizons. Traveling suits Awesome Gem’s personality, Dollase said, and the money has been pretty darn good. Spectacular, in fact.

“We kid about it,” Dollase said Thursday from Del Mar, Awesome Gem’s headquarters for now. “We call him the ATM of West Point Thoroughbreds. He’s just one of those horses who thrive on traveling. He doesn’t need to take his racetrack with him. He’s a pleasure to train, a dream, really. He’s got a blue-collar way about him. He doesn’t always win, but he’s always right there.”

Awesome Gem has made six starts in 2011 – at six tracks, naturally – with one victory, one second, and one third. The victory came in a Grade 3 race at Lone Star in May, when he defeated Game On Dude going 1 1/16 miles. In his most recent outing, Awesome Gem finished fifth in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup, a race he won in 2010.

“He came back a little quick after a race in Iowa, but I still thought he ran very well,” Dollase said. “The Beyer numbers were real strong. He ran his race. He just got beat a few lengths by some tough horses. He didn’t back off. We’re pleased with where we’re at with him. The timing of this race is good.”

Dollase has been a regular visitor to Emerald Downs for the Longacres Mile, finishing third with Tropic Storm in 2008 and then second with Awesome Gem in 2009, a race he might have won if not for a wide trip under Russell Baze on a day when inside speed was dominant.

“I’ve come up almost every year with one of the West Point horses,” Dollase said. “It’s a good fit for Gem, conventional dirt. He came out of the Hollywood Gold Cup in good shape. He likes to travel, this horse, and we picked this spot. … He can handle pretty much everything we throw at him. Hopefully, we’ll get a ground-saving trip this time. David knows him as well as anybody.”

Awesome Gem has competed in four Breeders’ Cups and could be headed back to Churchill Downs this fall. Dollase said those plans have yet to be completed.

“Right now, we’re focused on the Mile up there, and it looks like we’ll be a top three-choice, I presume,” Dollase said. “I know that Noosa Beach is the defending champion and is in good form. They’ve done a great job with him. But Gem is doing great right now. It’s a good fit.”

◗ Twenty-eight horses were nominated to the Longacres Mile, and a full field of 12 is expected. Awesome Gem tops the list of probable California shippers, which also includes Slew the Man, Posse Power, Honour the Deputy, and JP Jammer. Three horses from Hastings in Vancouver, British Columbia – St Liams Halo, Crew Leader, and Don’twaitforme – also are likely for the Mile. Handicap weights were to be assigned Saturday, with entries to be taken Wednesday.