08/15/2012 4:55PM

Emerald Downs: Longacres Mile lures 11, led by Awesome Gem

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Erin Palmer/Emerald Downs
Awesome Gem will try to defend his 2011 Longacres Mile victory.

AUBURN, Wash. – Awesome Gem drew post 3 and was installed as the 5-2 morning-line favorite when entries were taken Wednesday for Sunday’s Grade 3, $200,000 Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs.

Seeking to become the first horse since Simply Majestic in 1988-89 to win the Longacres Mile twice, Awesome Gem will carry high weight of 123 pounds and jockey David Flores when he starts in the Mile for the third time in four years. After finishing a fast-closing second behind upset winner Assessment in 2009, Awesome Gem returned last summer to defeat local hero Noosa Beach by 1 1/2 lengths.

While Noosa Beach is out of the picture for now, recuperating from injuries sustained earlier this year, this year’s Mile features more high-class runners than any in recent memory. In addition to Awesome Gem, a Grade 1 stakes winner and the richest horse in training in North America, the field includes five other graded stakes winners, the top two handicap horses from western Canada, and a middle-distance dynamo trained by John Sadler who could give Awesome Gem a spirited run for his money.

Gladding, who joined Sadler’s barn late in 2010, has been formidable at a mile, losing narrowly after setting the pace in the Grade 3 Texas Mile at Lone Star last April, and most recently taking the 1 1/16-mile Alamedan Handicap at Pleasanton by more than six lengths. He will start from the inside post position with jockey Juan Hernandez.

Should he break cleanly and avoid traffic issues in the short run to the first turn, Gladding is likely to be among the early pacesetters, a task made easier Wednesday with the surprise defection of Hollywood Harbor, who has recorded the fastest times of the Emerald meeting at 5 1/2 and six furlongs but will run instead in an allowance race on the Longacres Mile undercard.

While Awesome Gem and Gladding, both based in Southern California, are sure to be popular in the wagering, the list of legitimate contenders runs at least six deep. Taylor Said has won four consecutive stakes races at Hastings, and his Troy Taylor-trained stablemate St Liams Halo was the 2011 horse of the year in British Columbia and put forth a sterling effort in the 1 1/16-mile Mount Rainier Handicap at Emerald Downs in his most recent start July 22. Remarkably, it has been 42 years – since Silver Double in 1970 – that a horse has prevailed in the Longacres Mile after making his previous start in Vancouver at Exhibition Park or Hastings.

Stymied behind horses at the top of the stretch in the Mount Rainier, St Liams Halo closed gamely under Mario Gutierrez to miss by a head behind Hudson Landing and could use that effort as a springboard to a Longacres Mile victory. Four of the past six Mount Rainier winners have gone on to capture the Mile.

Hudson Landing, St Liams Halo, and Winning Machine finished heads apart in the Mount Rainier, and all three would seem to have a fighting chance Sunday. Hudson Landing and jockey Frank Alvarado will start from post 5; St Liams Halo will break from post 11 with new rider Leslie Mawing; and Winning Machine, the leading handicap horse at Emerald Downs, will break from post 4 under Javier Matias. Gutierrez, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard I’ll Have Another, will ride Taylor Said.

Trainer Frank Lucarelli will saddle two starters, with Gallant Son, Emerald Downs’s champion 2-year-old in 2008, joining Winning Machine. Gallant Son last raced July 1 on turf at Hollywood Park but has trained forwardly at Golden Gate in advance of the Longacres Mile. He and William Antongeorgi II will start from post 2.

Assessment, who became the first horse in 75 years to win the Mile from post 12 with his victory in 2009, drew the more favorable post 6. A runner-up in an allowance sprint in his only start of the year, Assessment will be one of the longest shots on the board Sunday in a highly competitive field of 11.