08/17/2012 1:52PM

Hovdey: Longacres Mile is Puhich's Kentucky Derby

Tom Keyser
Jockey Mario Gutierrez, acting on the advice of trainer Mike Puhich, will ride Taylor Said in Sunday's Longacres Mile.

Mike Puhich had to laugh. The scene seemed almost surreal, at least compared with the events of just a few months before.

Out on the track the most celebrated jockey in America, winner of the 2012 ESPY Award for Thoroughbred racing, was gearing up to work a 5-year-old gelding who was pretty much anonymous outside a small circle of admirers living in the Pacific Northwest. There were no satellite trucks parked nearby. No rope lines holding back the media. No New York Times. No Bob Costas.

Just Mario Gutierrez, St Liams Halo, his owner Glen Todd, and Puhich, who at least had a camera on his cell phone.

“It was so cool,” recalled Puhich. “There we were, all by ourselves, and there was the Kentucky Derby-winning jockey getting our horse ready for what I consider my Kentucky Derby. It was awesome.”

Puhich was talking about the Longacres Mile, which runs on Sunday at Emerald Downs, and before anyone accuses him of delusional exaggeration they had best walk a few miles in the shoes of a native-born Seattle racetracker. For someone like Puhich, steeped in the traditions of the Northwest, there is the Longacres Mile, and then all the rest.

Sunday’s running – the 17th at Emerald Downs and 77th since it was inaugurated at the long-gone Longacres Racetrack in 1935 – has not drawn a horse the stature of Viking Spirit, who sizzled under Johnny Longden in the 1964 Mile, or Chinook Pass, the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter who got the distance on sheer class in 1983, or Skywalker, who used the Mile as a stepping-stone to his victory in the 1986 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But the field of 11 does have the 9-year-old defending champ Awesome Gem, Old Man River himself, as well as SoCal hotshot Gladding, along with a collection of consistent players who will take a deep breath and go hard for 95 seconds or so for a share of $200,000 and a place in local lore.

St Liams Halo is one of them, and on that recent Saturday morning at the Pegasus Training and Equine Rehabilitation Center near Redmond, about 15 miles east by northeast of Seattle, he turned in a workout that earned him a place in the gate.

From the only crop of 2008 Horse of the Year St. Liam, St Liams Halo comes off a close second in the Mt. Rainier Handicap at Emerald Downs on July 22. He will go postward in the Mile alongside stablemate Taylor Said, who is on a roll of five straight wins, most recently a track-record score under 128 pounds at Hastings, where the Glenn Todd runners are based.

“Last year if you’d have asked which would be the better horse it would have been a slam dunk you’d say St Liams Halo,” said Puhich, who runs the racehorse training program at Pegasus for owner Dr. Mark Dedomenico. “But Taylor Said has turned into a freakish monster.”

Which is why Gutierrez, who won three races last year aboard St Liam’ Halo, will be aboard Taylor Said in the Mile.

“Mario couldn’t decide between them,” Puhich said. “So Glen told him he had to go with the hot horse.”

The relationship between Gutierrez and Todd is reminiscent of the way Johnny Fontane felt about his godfather, Vito Corleone. When Michael Corleone asked rising star Johnny to commit to their Vegas casino for five appearances a year, Fontaine said, “Sure, Mike, I’ll do anything for my godfather. You know that,” without a blink.

In that spirit, the previously unsung Gutierrez has fled the bright lights of his overnight notoriety after winning the Derby and Preakness with I’ll Have Another to spend the summer in his adopted home of Vancouver honoring commitments to Todd and his trainer, Troy Taylor.

Gutierrez has been back and forth to Northlands Park in Edmonton to ride Todd-Taylor horses – they won the $50,000 Don Fleming Handicap there on Aug. 6 – while also travelling hither and yon as well for I’ll Have Another’s owner, Paul Reddam. On the day before the Longacres Mile, Gutierrez will be at Arlington Park aboard the Reddam colts Handsome Mike in the Secretariat and Lumberyard Jack in the American St. Leger.

As for Puhich, who traded in his public stable to work at Pegasus, he is thrilled Todd and Taylor have trusted him with the trainer’s role for the Mile, but it should be no surprise. Lately, their fates have been intertwined.

It was Mike’s uncle Ivan Puhich who came out of retirement last year to take the book of Gutierrez in Southern California and put the young rider on I’ll Have Another for the morning workout that led to all those bright lights. And since Todd is the Pegasus Training Center’s main Thoroughbred client, Mike Puhich knows both St Liams Halo and Taylor Said very well.

“I get choked up just thinking about it,” Puhich said. “Glen and Troy have been together in the business for 47 years, and this is the first horse they’ve had in the Mile together. But they also know how much this race means to me. I don’t think I’ve missed a Mile since 1970, when my dad’s jock won the race on Silver Double. I’ve only run in it once, with Southern Africa in 2006, when he finished third.

“Of course we already screwed up the draw,” Puhich added with a laugh. “They let us draw our own peas. I drew first and got the 11 post, then Glen drew the other and got the 10.”

This puts Taylor Said and St Liams Halo on a tough path to the abrupt first turn.

“Both horses are doing spectacular, though, and the Mile can be a hard race for horses coming here from somewhere else,” Puhich said. “Anyway, whatever good happens on Sunday, Troy Taylor gets all the credit. And if they don’t run any good, at least they’ve got somebody to blame.”