08/16/2013 4:28PM

Emerald Downs: Longacres Mile dream could come true for Hoonan

Emerald Downs
Stryker Phd (left) roars down the lane of the Budweiser Handicap but just misses catching Jebrica. His late kick under Debbie Hoonan could be dangerous in the Longacres Mile.

AUBURN, Wash. – When the jockeys with mounts in the Longacres Mile assemble in the Emerald Downs paddock for the traditional prerace photograph Sunday afternoon, Debbie Hoonan will be there to rub elbows with some of the sport’s brightest lights. Russell Baze, a member of the National Racing Hall of Fame and Hoonan’s distant relative, will be present to ride likely favorite Politicallycorrect, and Mario Gutierrez, who won the 2012 Kentucky Derby with I’ll Have Another, has the call on Hoist.

[LONGACRES MILE: Get PPs, watch Sunday's full card live]

Hoonan’s portfolio is substantially thinner – she has never won a graded stakes race – but her horse in the Longacres Mile is no less worthy than any of the others. Stryker Phd, a late-runner who by all accounts has yet to run his best race, will break from post 5 as an 8-1 outsider in the morning line but with a genuine chance to win if a flight of would-be front-runners goes too fast early and sets things up for a lightning strike from the clouds.

How good is Stryker Phd, exactly? He has just one victory, in a maiden race on yielding turf at Golden Gate Fields last November, and one might think that a horse eligible to compete against nonwinners of two would be an automatic throw-out in a graded stakes race. But no other horse in the field can boast a late kick to rival Stryker Phd’s. He has finished second in his past three starts, all Emerald Downs stakes, while making headway on a surface that can be strongly speed favoring.

“He’s legitimate,” Hoonan said this week. “He’s just so powerful, and he runs right. He just relaxes and you push the ‘go’ button, and he just flies that last part. It’s like riding a locomotive.”

To get from Point A – she was raised in nearby Puyallup, Wash., the daughter of a schoolteacher and a high school sports administrator – to her current Point B, Hoonan, 46, has had to endure some of the physical and emotional challenges common to jockeys. She had stopped breathing when paramedics reached her after a particularly nasty spill at Golden Gate several years ago. She sustained a skull fracture in 2011 that cost her a portion of the Emerald Downs meeting and threatened her career. After multiple anterior and posterior cruciate ligament injuries, her wobbly right knee is inhabited by cadaver parts.

Hoonan, then a fledgling rider, reached an emotional low when Longacres was shuttered in 1992 and hundreds of Northwest horsemen were displaced. She reached similar low ebb last year when she split from partner Lisa Trujillo, a private event that was made public because Hoonan had changed her name to Hoonan-Trujillo after she and Trujillo were married in 2006.

“After Longacres closed, I got into alcohol quite a bit,” Hoonan said. “But I got my head back on straight, and the weight came off, and I pursued my nonstop dream. Every night, I would dream that I would get to the races and couldn’t find my boots. I just couldn’t get to the gate somehow. But in my mind, I was always practicing. I practiced for 12 years and came back.”

Hoonan has stores of experience exercising top-class horses from her days in Southern California, where she spent about six years as a freelance exercise rider and assistant trainer before restarting her riding career in 2004. She said the Eclipse Award-winning filly Serena’s Song was her favorite.

Trainer Sharon Ross and owners Sue and Tim Spooner were among the people who reached out to Hoonan to help jump-start her second tour as a jockey. She eventually fell in with trainer Margo Lloyd, herself in the process of a career comeback after the death of her husband.

Hoonan and Lloyd have enjoyed some success together, most notably with You Me and Ema B, a filly who gave Lloyd her first Emerald Downs stakes victory in 2011, and now Stryker Phd.

“I’ve know her for years,” Hoonan said of Lloyd. “I met her at the horse sales when I was a kid. I was galloping for her in the early 2000s before I came back to race-riding. She’s a great trainer, one of the most underrated. I don’t think anyone can read a horse from the ground any better than her. She’s incredible. She can tell if something’s wrong, and she can pick ’em out of the sale. She gets like one horse to pick, and other guys get 20, and who does she pick? You Me and Ema B, Stryker Phd. . . . She’s really intelligent.”

Owners Jim and Mona Hour paid $45,000 for Stryker Phd at the 2010 Washington summer yearling sale, but the horse took a while to come to hand. But it’s not like Lloyd was hiding Stryker Phd from anyone. She has been touting her Bertrando colt out a Smart Strike mare for the past couple of years, and it turns out Lloyd knew exactly what she was talking about.

To win the Longacres Mile, Stryker Phd “just needs to come out and settle, gallop around there and work three-eighths,” Hoonan said, mindful that the pace figures to be white hot, and that a closer, one with a powerful finishing kick, could be hard to hold off through the final furlong.

Hoonan manages nervous laughter when asked how a Longacres Mile victory might impact her life.

“It would be huge,” she said. “A dream come true.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the sire of Stryker Phd. It is Bertrando, not Bernardini.