08/07/2012 3:23PM

Emerald Downs: Deep cast nominated to Longacres Mile

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Awesome Gem is expected to return to Emerald Downs to defend his title in the Grade 3 Longacres Mile.

AUBURN, Wash. – A total of 26 horses were named as possible starters in the Grade 3, $200,000 Longacres Mile when nominations closed Sunday, and while there are several pretenders on the list, the final field on Aug. 19 could be the deepest and most competitive in the 77-year history of the Northwest’s richest race.

Awesome Gem, who captured the Longacres Mile in 2011 and with nearly $2.9 million in career earnings is the richest horse in training in North America, will return to Emerald Downs to defend his title, trainer Craig Dollase said.

In addition to Awesome Gem, whose career highlight was a victory in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup in 2010, the nominees include seven other graded stakes winners and some of the sharpest middle-distance runners from both California and British Columbia.

Among the more surprising nominees were Eldaafer, who won the Breeders’ Cup Marathon in 2010, and Jersey Town, who competed Sunday in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt at Saratoga. A few claiming horses also found their way onto the list, but there’s enough quality at the top, and enough stated interest from trainers of prospective runners, to ensure a full field of 12 with many legitimate contenders.

Awesome Gem is likely to be the high-weighted runner when weights are revealed Saturday. In his most recent outing, the globe-trotting 9-year-old gelding finished third behind Fort Larned in the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows, an effort that was flattered Saturday when Fort Larned captured the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. Awesome Gem carried 122 pounds to victory in the 2011 Longacres Mile, three less than high-weighted runner-up Noosa Beach.

Among those capable of toppling Awesome Gem are Hudson Landing, winner of the Mount Rainier Handicap at Emerald Downs in his last start; Taylor Said, the leading handicap horse in British Columbia; and Gladding, a romping winner in the Alamedan Handicap at Pleasanton in his last start.

Hudson Landing has built an impressive r é sum é since changing barns five months ago. Claimed for $50,000 at Golden Gate, he won the Grade 3 San Francisco Mile on turf in his third start for trainer Blaine Wright, was elevated via disqualification to second behind Awesome Gem in the Grade 3 Berkeley Handicap, and then was a troubled seventh in the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park before coming north to win the Mount Rainier. The latter race has been a key indicator of success in the Longacres Mile – four of the past six Mount Rainier victors have gone on to win the Mile.