08/19/2011 4:44PM

Emerald: Fan favorite Wasserman back in Longacres Mile


Every summer at Saratoga, as if the tomatoes and lemonade depended on his blessing, Fourstardave would appear fresh and ready for action, winning race after race until, at age 10, he finally said goodbye.

Every summer at Del Mar, certain as the tides and the setting of the sun, Native Diver would strut his stuff, turning the top handicaps into his own private stage right up to one last, track-record showstopper at age 8.

And every year at Emerald Downs, since a 3-year-old son of Cahill Road trotted up by 6 1/2 lengths in a six-furlong maiden event in May 2005, the institution known as Wasserman has been an indispensible part of summertime racing in the Pacific Northwest.

Of Wasserman’s 62 lifetime starts, he has made 51 at Emerald Downs. Each of his 11 wins and nearly all of his 22 seconds and thirds have come right there in the shadow of Mount Rainier. He has earned more than $550,000 − as Rodney Daingerfield would say, “the hard way” − and while the body at age 9 might not be quite as willing as it once was, there’s no doubt the spirit is still strong.

On Sunday, the biggest day of the Emerald Downs meet, Wasserman will run in his fifth Longacres Mile. It’s becoming hard to imagine the race without him. He won the race in 2008. He was third in 2007. And in 2009 he was fourth when his breakneck finish fell 1 1/4 lengths short of catching stablemate Assessment.

This year the field for the Mile is robust. Winning the best piece of the $200,000 won’t be easy. Noosa Beach, a bonafide regional star, comes into the fight having won 10 of his last 11 starts. Awesome Gem, a 9-year-old road warrior with $2.5 million in the bank, finished a close second in the 2009 Mile. Honour the Deputy represents the dangerous Jerry Hollendorfer string, and in addition to sending forth Wasserman, trainer Howard Belvoir will run the 2009 Mile winner, Assessment, a lad of just 7.

“He finally got a decent post position,” Belvoir said of Assessment on Friday morning after training hours. “This will be his fourth year he’s run in the Mile, and before this he’s had post 10, 11, and 12. He ran fourth, third, and he won − out of the 12-hole.”

The Mile, at once around, presents a short run to the first turn that can play havoc with big, fast fields.

“This race is traditionally a very tough race to ride,” Belvoir said. “Jimmy Craswell was a pretty good rider here in Seattle, and he told me years ago that you’ve pretty much got to ride every horse into that first turn, then decide what to do from there. It‘s a real strategy race.”

To that end, Wasserman will be reunited Sunday with Jennifer Whitaker, his longtime companion who has been aboard in 48 appearances, including his four previous Miles. She is the only woman to have ridden the winner of a Longacres Mile.

Their relationship was interrupted last February, when Whitaker fractured her upper arm and dislocated her shoulder in a morning accident. She is back at full strength and ready for a reunion with Wasserman, who gets in with a 112-pound assignment that Whitaker does easily.

“I missed him awful bad,” Whitaker said. “Him and all my horses. I couldn’t get on them, so I just stayed away and watched the races on TV. But I think the time off ended up being good for me, both body and mind. I would have never taken it without getting hurt − I love working too much − but I feel better than ever.”

Whitaker has won with 5 of her 21 mounts since her return, including a score on last Saturday’s program. In a career that started in her mid-20’s and has been largely confined to the Pacific Northwest, Whitaker has won 402 races to rank as Emerald’s all-time leader among women riders.

It might take more than a whiff of Whitaker’s magic to get Wasserman close this time around though. When he came back to the races this spring from his traditional winter on the farm, he soon drifted into claiming races for the first time in his life. Despite being the all-time leading money-winner in Emerald Downs history, Wasserman has not been competitive in a local stakes event since his second nearly a year ago in the Muckleshoot Tribal Classic, when he was beaten nearly three lengths by fellow Washington-bred Noosa Beach.

“It’s a shot in the dark,” Belvoir said. “That owner of his just enters to enter.”

Wasserman was bred and has been owned his entire eventful life by the same guy, Howard Belvoir.

“He might not belong in the race, although he’s been running good races this year, and he’s training probably better than he’s trained for a while,” Belvoir said. “He just needs to relax, drop back, and then he needs the breaks.”

Whitaker will be poised for just that moment.

“He’ll know me when I get back on him, and I’ll know he’s on his game if he relaxes for me and lets the others go on,” she said. “When we get to the quarter pole we’ll see what happens.”

What’s for sure to happen, win or lose, is a traditional Wasserman welcome from the big Mile crowd.

“He’s been awful good to me, and he’s good for the public,” Belvoir said. “When he won that claiming race for $25,000 here last month I think he got the biggest ovation of the meet. People were coming up and shaking my hand − you’d think he won the Mile again.”