05/26/2011 11:53AM

Emerald: Awesome Woman to take talent test in Seattle


AUBURN, Wash. – Lou Tice hit paydirt once. Now, perhaps, he’s done it again.

Tice’s first serendipitous turn in racing took place in September 2005, when he spent $16,000 at Keeneland for a Jump Start yearling named Assessment. The second came four years later, shortly after Assessment raced to an upset victory in the Pacific Northwest’s only graded race, the $300,000 Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs.

Winning the Mile was fulfilling for an owner who’s spent decades in the game, and the money was nice, too. Assessment earned $165,000 for his Mile victory, and four weeks later, back at Keeneland, Tice parted with $60,000 to purchase a yearling filly named Awesome Woman.

Awesome Woman, now 3, might be just as talented as her celebrated stablemate. She galloped to an easy victory in her career debut May 7 and will be a leading contender Sunday if she starts as scheduled in the $50,000 Seattle Handicap.

Howard Belvoir, Tice’s trainer for the most of the past decade, accompanied Tice on the trip to Kentucky. Belvoir picked out Awesome Woman, smitten by the filly the moment he laid eyes on her.

“She just walked by us,” Belvoir said. “I don’t usually buy fillies, but something caught my eye with her. It was just one of those lucky moves … I hadn’t studied her in the catalog or anything.”

The entire day was a blur. Tice and his traveling party left Seattle before dawn aboard a private jet, spent the afternoon in Lexington, happened across Awesome Woman in the bustling milieu of Keeneland, submitted a winning bid, and then returned home before sundown.

“We had enough money for another one, but everyone was getting tired, so we said, ‘Let’s go home,’” Belvoir said. “We left at 5 a.m., bought the horse and were back here by 8 o’clock at night.”

Belvoir took his time with Awesome Woman, keeping her under wraps during her 2-year-old year before tightening the screws this spring. Bettors took note of speed influences in her pedigree – she’s by Henny Hughes from the Elusive Quality mare Handlewoman – and some snappy workouts and made her 3-1 in the wagering. Turns out the $8.60 mutuel was a bargain.

Bumped at the break and sluggish to begin, Awesome Woman ambled into contention down the backstretch, accelerated through an opening on the turn, and widened her margin through the stretch to win by 6 3/4 lengths in 1:10.21. Allowing for her tardy beginning, Awesome Woman covered the initial half-mile in less than 44 seconds, a remarkable achievement for a 3-year-old filly making her first start, and on a sloppy track no less.

“She’s a nice filly,” Belvoir said Wednesday morning, after Awesome Woman drew the outside post position in a seven-horse field for the 6 1/2-furlong Seattle Handicap. “She just worked in 34-and-2 this morning. They’re going to have to run to beat her.”

Looking to get a piece in the Auburn

On the same day Tice found his latest needle in a haystack, another owner with local ties, Jeff Stoddard, picked up a promising yearling at Keeneland. Stoddard paid $30,000 for Landed On the Moon, a gelding by the hot sire Malibu Moon and a half-brother to Loch Dubh, a stakes winner at Turfway Park in 2008. Landed On the Moon’s dam, Star Landing, is a half-sister to Epic Hour, winner of the Grade 3 Golden Gate Derby in 1999.

Landed On the Moon was heavily bet in his debut at Mountaineer Park last November, sent away as the 3-1 second favorite in a 10-horse field, but finished a distant fourth after breaking poorly. He was on his toes in start No. 2 last month, however, rallying from mid-pack to take a $10,000 maiden claimer. Then came a cross-country van trip, followed by a surprisingly good effort in a $25,000 claiming race in his first start at Emerald Downs.

Landed On the Moon is the polar opposite of Awesome Woman: he’s a lumbering, late-running sprinter who’s practically begging for a route of ground. In the meantime, trainer John A. Holmes will try Landed On the Moon in the 6 1/2-furlong Auburn Handicap, the feature race at Emerald on Memorial Day.

“I expect the horse to be passing horses down the lane, but this is an experience-getter more than anything,” said Holmes, who began training for Stoddard in 2010. “Hopefully, it’s just another step in the right direction. If I think he can hit the board in a stakes race, I want to take that chance.”

A stakes victory would be a first for Holmes, 50, who got his trainer’s license at 19 and spent a good part of the past three decades working for the likes of Jim Penney and Dave Forster at Emerald Downs, and Willard Proctor at Santa Anita. Born and raised in Monroe, Wash., Holmes owns an upholstery shop in his hometown, a real-world job to augment his love for the track.

“My granddad, Bud Holmes, had a training center outside of Monroe,” Holmes said. “He also had a mattress shop in Ballard. He ran it during the week, and then they’d pack up everybody for the weekend and go to the fair meets. I started coming to the track full-time when I was 16. They tried to keep me away before that, and my first year, I was hooked. I’ve tried to be a part of it ever since.”

Landed On the Moon will be a big price on Monday. Holmes just wants to see progress.

“The horse is still learning a lot about racing,” he said. “He’s a late foal, middle of May, so he’s just now a 3-year-old. Every race has been a new experience, a different track, different conditions, but he’s still learning, and that’s the part I like, developing horses. It’s very rewarding to see that happen.”