08/23/2011 3:30PM

Emerald Downs: Awesome Gem shows his class in Longacres Mile win

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Tom Keyser
Awesome Gem won the Longacres Mile by 1 1/2 lengths on Sunday.

AUBURN, Wash. – It’s been an unusual year for Craig Dollase. A highly regarded trainer in Southern California, he began the year in an 0-for-30 funk at Santa Anita, and while things have picked up lately, Dollase had saddled just seven winners in seven-plus months heading into the Grade 3 Longacres Mile last Sunday at Emerald Downs.

Yet even when times are tough, Dollase, 40, has been able to count on the redoubtable Awesome Gem to bail him out. So it was again Sunday, when the globetrotting 8-year-old gelding stormed to a 1 1/2-length victory over local hero Noosa Beach in the 76th running of the Northwest’s signature race.

Assistant trainer Sergio Martin accompanied Awesome Gem to Emerald Downs. Dollase watched the race from a suite at Del Mar, alongside West Point Thoroughbreds president Terry Finley and a group of friends.

“It was pretty crazy down here . . . going down the lane, I wouldn’t have been surprised if you heard us all the way up at Emerald Downs,” Dollase said shortly after the race. “It got pretty loud, and right now my phone is burning up. David Flores rode a great race – he helped overcome the outside post and gave the horse a chance to win. And then Awesome Gem showed his true heart down the lane. You don’t see horses like him too often. I’m very excited to finally get a Longacres Mile, because we’ve tried so hard to win this race.”

The Mile unfolded according to script: Noosa Beach, breaking from the No. 10 post, went straight to the front, while Awesome Gem, starting from post 11 – a spot that had yielded just one Mile winner in 41 previous attempts – settled into a striking position in the middle of the pack. After a tepid first half-mile in 46.62 seconds, Noosa Beach quickened to put away the other pace pretenders, but Awesome Gem was soon at his throat. Awesome Gem barreled to the lead at the top of the stretch after sprinting through a quarter-mile around the bend in less than 23 seconds. Noosa Beach was game; Awesome Gem was relentless.

“It was one of his best performances,” Dollase said of his stable star, a four-time Breeders’ Cup participant and winner of the 2010 Hollywood Gold Cup. “He kind of touted me working two back that he was sitting on a big race, breezing at Del Mar. I felt pretty confident. It’s another feather in his cap. He obviously likes the track up there, and we got a much better trip than in 2009.”

Noosa Beach, carrying high weight of 125 pounds on the heels of seven consecutive stakes victories, fought back under Gallyn Mitchell to finish second, two lengths ahead of Posse Power in the field of 11. That Noosa Beach had to concede three pounds to Awesome Gem was a point of contention for trainer Doris Harwood. Could the weight have made a difference? After watching Awesome Gem’s virtuoso performance Sunday, such a thought seemed far-fetched.

Mitchell said everything unfolded just as planned, until Awesome Gem got involved.

“He broke great and we got over to the fence without any problems,” Mitchell said of Noosa Beach. “He was doing it easy on the front end, just pricking his ears. I wanted to keep him off the fence a little bit because the rail was a little deep. He just kept digging in the whole way. This horse has never quit for me once this year. I’m really proud of him, and I’m glad to be a part of him. I take nothing away from the winner. That’s a nice horse.”

Nice horse indeed. Awesome Gem won the Grade 3 Lone Star Park Handicap in May, finished second in the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows in June, and was a hard-charging fifth in the Hollywood Gold Cup in his last start before the Longacres Mile. He has earned $408,588 this year, and $2,688,270 in his career, which explains why Dollase refers to him quite fondly as “the ATM of West Point Thoroughbreds.” Awesome Gem pocketed $110,000 for his Mile victory, more than Dollase’s horses earned during the entire meeting at Santa Anita.

Dollase downplayed talk of a weight controversy, noting that Awesome Gem covered more ground than Noosa Beach.

“We won the race fair and square,” he said, a sentiment echoed by Frank Lucarelli, the Emerald-based trainer who saddled Posse Power.

“I wish they would have had equal weights, because I think you would have seen the exact same race,” Lucarelli said. “I know weight is the great equalizer, but these horses have hearts, too, and I still think that on that day, that horse would have won the race. That doesn’t mean Noosa Beach isn’t a great horse, because he is, but on Sunday, Awesome Gem was better.”