07/27/2012 4:00PM

Emerald Downs: Longacres Mile cast shaping up

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AUBURN, Wash. – The field for the Aug. 19 Longacres Mile came into clearer focus this week at Emerald Downs. According to their respective trainers, defending champion Awesome Gem is a definite, and Jersey Town, the Mile runner-up in 2010, is a definite maybe for the Northwest’s richest race.

Craig Dollase confirmed from Del Mar that he will ship Awesome Gem north a few days before the Grade 3, $200,000 Longacres Mile, and that David Flores would fly in to ride the globe-trotting 9-year-old. Awesome Gem has earned more than $2.8  million during a 51-start career that has taken him to 13 different racetracks, most recently Prairie Meadows, where he finished third in the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap on June 30.

“Yeah, we’re going to come up and defend our title, absolutely,” Dollase said Thursday. “The old boy is doing well at the ripe age of 9. He doesn’t know he’s 9. We’re happy with how he came out of the race at Prairie Meadows. The timing seems right, and he seems like he’s up to the challenge.”

Awesome Gem earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 98 for his effort in the Cornhusker. After tracking a slow pace, he rallied four wide into the stretch but couldn’t catch front-running winner Fort Larned or odds-on favorite Successful Dan. Dollase said the performance was a good one.

“That track was playing pretty speed-biased that night,” he said. “It might not have suited his style, but he made his run and got third money. We were pleased. I really like the way he’s come out of the race. Like I said, August 19, the timing is real good. We’ll work backwards from that date and get him up there a couple of days out.”

As he did a year ago, assistant trainer Sergio Martin will accompany Awesome Gem to Emerald Downs while Dollase stays back to manage his string at Del Mar.

“He’s been with me forever,” Dollase said of Martin. “He actually used to get on the horse. He doesn’t get on ’em anymore, but he’s been with me that long and he knows him great, travels with him real well. We’ll stick with what works.”

Meanwhile, New York-based trainer Barclay Tagg relayed word to Tim McCanna at Emerald Downs that the Longacres Mile was among the races being considered for Jersey Town. McCanna handled Jersey Town during his 2010 campaign, when he finished second behind Noosa Beach in the Mile and later captured the Grade 1 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct after owner Charles Fipke transferred the horse to Tagg.

“They would fly him out here, so they’re looking into flights right now,” McCanna said late Thursday. “It kind of depends on what Barclay and Fipke come up with. It’s hard to say.”

Jersey Town has raced just once this year, finishing second in a minor stakes race at Gulfstream Park on March 31, but has been training steadily since a five-week hiatus that ended in late June. He worked a sharp five furlongs last Friday at Saratoga, and then another five furlongs six days later.

“He had some issues with some feet, and this and that,” McCanna said. “But he had a good five-eighths work the other day. The Mile is just an option. We may know something next week.”

Portland Meadows handle slips

While Portland Meadows’ new summer meeting has been well received by fans, handle at Oregon’s flagship track has lagged well behind its most recent winter meeting. Average daily all-sources handle through Wednesday, the fifth day of the new meeting, was $221,110. During the 55-day winter stand that concluded March 14, average daily handle was $690,930.

In making the move to summer racing, with programs Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, Portland Meadows stepped onto a far more competitive playing field. Wagering on its races from out-of-state venues accounted for the vast majority of its handle during the winter months. But through the first five days of the current meeting, inter-state betting has averaged $178,686 per day.

Buoyed by a concerted promotional campaign, warm weather, and free admission, ontrack attendance has swelled. The task now is to get those fans to wager – ontrack handle has averaged $38,725 per day at the new meeting. The average field size through 44 races is 5.9 runners per race.

Jim Fergason, a six-time training champion at Portland and president of the Oregon Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said the early returns have been encouraging. Fergason said he’s confident that Frank Stronach, who assumed private ownership of Portland Meadows in June 2011, is committed to building a viable summer operation, even if it takes a while.

“I think things are going fine,” Fergason said. “We’re getting the people in here now. We’ve just got to teach them how to bet. They’re new fans, mostly. So it’s a change. It will probably happen, but it will take a little while to get it done. I’m confident they’ll wait it out.”

“It’s phenomenal how many people are coming,” Fergason said. “It’s a good atmosphere on the backside, with the horsemen and all that, too. We’re gradually building our horse population. The fairs are over now, so those horses are starting to trickle in, and a few are coming down from Emerald Downs. It’s starting to build.”