08/19/2011 1:25PM

Emerald Downs: Noosa Beach the obvious focus


AUBURN, Wash. – The prevailing plotline for the Grade 3 Longacres Mile – can anybody beat Noosa Beach? – was muddled Wednesday when the race favorite drew the 11 post position and leading challenger Awesome Gem drew the 12. Quite literally, the top two contenders will be on the outside looking in when they break from the gate Sunday at Emerald Downs in the Northwest’s marquee race.

With a $200,000 purse at stake, the Mile attracted shippers from California and Canada, a diverse cast of seven newcomers joining five local horses in a capacity field. Noosa Beach has won seven consecutive stakes races and remains the one to beat, but the combination of a daunting weight assignment (125 pounds, three more than Awesome Gem) and a difficult draw (only once in 75 years has the Mile been won by a horse breaking from post 11) has helped level the playing field and brought several more contenders into play.

None of the above is assuring to Doris Harwood, who trains Noosa Beach, or to her husband, Jeff, who owns the 5-year-old Harbor the Gold gelding and recently paid $25,000 to make Noosa Beach eligible for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile this fall at Churchill Downs. Doris Harwood downplayed the post position, saying “he’s such a big horse with a long stride, being on the outside isn’t such a bad thing.” She said weights assigned to the other Emerald horses were equitable. But Harwood was miffed about the spread between her horse and Awesome Gem, a Grade 1 winner who has earned more than $2.5 million. When he starts in the Mile on Sunday, Awesome Gem will be the richest horse ever to compete at a Washington racetrack.

“We can’t do anything about the weights. It’s unfair, but it is what it is,” Harwood said Friday morning. “When we look at the race, nobody likes the outside post, but Noosa Beach and Slew the Man have the most speed, so we’re going to have a clear shot to that first turn. Really, there’s no one better than Gallyn Mitchell at getting ’em out of the gate. The horse is so versatile that we’re not really committed to any one thing. But Noosa is doing fabulous. He’s absolutely on the muscle.”

Compared with previous editions, this year’s Mile came up unusually light in the speed department. Hollywood Harbor, perhaps the quickest sprinter at Emerald Downs, was being considered for the Mile, but instead will run in Sunday’s seventh race, a $30,000 allowance at 6 1/2 furlongs. St Liams Halo, a double stakes winner at Hastings, or Slew the Man, gate-to-wire winner of a 1 1/6-mile stakes race at Pleasanton in his last start, could fall into the early lead, or perhaps Winning Machine, who set the pace in the 1 1/16-mile Mt. Rainier Handicap before yielding to Noosa Beach, will assert himself.

A prospect of a slow pace bodes poorly for Awesome Gem, an 8-year-old gelding who prefers to settle in and make one run. Awesome Gem finished second in the 2009 Longacres Mile after a wide trip in his only previous start at Emerald. From the 12 post, he could be forced to take the overland route around the first turn, though trainer Craig Dollase said jockey David Flores will be under strict orders to save as much ground as possible. The trainer said he’s not terribly concerned about the post position.

“We’re not a speed horse, so it shouldn’t hamper us too much,” Dollase said. “He’s training really well, and I expect him to run his best.”

Largely overlooked in the Mile buildup has been Assessment, who won the race in 2009, from the 12 post, and was being readied for the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita before injuries intervened. Assessment has been Noosa Beach’s punching bag over the past two years, but looked terrific in the 6 1/2-furlong Governor’s Handicap in May, when he closed with a rush to miss by a length. Assessment has been working brilliantly, and trainer Howard Belvoir expects a vintage effort.

“The race sets up about like it did when he won from the 12 hole – there’s speed on the outside and speed on the inside, and while it’s not a terrific amount of speed, it’s going to be a strategy race,” Belvoir said. “My horse can lay where he wants, the post is good, no excuses. The one who’s really in trouble is Awesome Gem. David Flores is a good rider, but he’s not familiar with the racetrack. The first turn here comes up faster than just about any track you can think of.”

It all comes back to the first turn. All eyes will be on Noosa Beach and Mitchell as they try to secure a favorable position. If it’s clear sailing by the time they hit the backstretch, the prevailing storyline comes back into play: Can anybody beat Noosa Beach?

“Truly, if he wins this race, it will write his name down in history books as one of the greatest Washington horses ever,” Harwood said. “He may get that chance to go to the Breeders’ Cup.”