08/13/2007 11:00PM

Longacres Mile's stature grows

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AUBURN, Wash. - The Grade 3 Longacres Mile, which will be renewed for the 72nd time Sunday with a record purse of $400,000, is the heart and soul of Northwest racing. It is the highlight of every local racing season, the race that everybody here wants to win.

In this context, one can readily understand the voting for the first three trainers to be inducted into the Washington Thoroughbred Hall of Fame in 2003. One slot was taken by Tom Smith, the trainer of Seabiscuit, who benefited from the phenomenally popular book and movie named for his most famous horse. The other two slots went to Allen Drumheller and Jim Penney, who had at that time saddled a record four Mile winners apiece (Penney broke the tie last year with Flamethrowintexan). Charlie Whittingham, whose 252 stakes wins included only one in the Mile, had to wait until the next year to be inducted.

This year's race has the usual mix of contenders, including the locally owned Raise the Bluff and locally trained Flamethrowintexan, who will try to keep the title at Emerald Downs, and graded-stakes-winning invaders Sinister Minister, Wanna Runner, and Gotaghostofachance.

The unique status of the Mile was no doubt what Longacres founder Joe Gottstein had in mind when he inaugurated the race in 1935, just two years after the track opened. Gottstein endowed the Longacres Mile with a lavish purse of $10,000, making it the richest one-mile race in the country. That purse attracted 20 entries and 16 starters, including Midwestern star Biff, the 126-pound highweight and 5-2 favorite, and Joey, who was later among the original inductees into the Canadian Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. In the end, however, a local longshot named Coldwater got the money and the glory when he prevailed by a neck over Biff, with Joey third.

The local hero who defeats a host of powerful invaders became a recurring theme through the decades of Mile history, and it was never more resonant than in 1981 when the Washington-bred Trooper Seven and Gary Baze, the state's all-time leading rider, won their second straight Longacres Mile by defeating California shippers Reb's Golden Ale (Sandy Hawley up), Summer Time Guy (Laffit Pincay Jr.), and Doonesbury (Bill Shoemaker) as the popular favorite.

The invaders have enjoyed plenty of success, however, and Mile winners such as Eclipse Award winner Chinook Pass (1983), Breeders' Cup Classic winner Skywalker (1986), world-record setter Simply Majestic (1988 and 1989), and millionaire Sky Jack (2003) have added luster to the Mile's reputation.

Hawley, Pincay, and Shoemaker all eventually collected Mile wins, and so did fellow Hall of Fame riders Ralph Neves, Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack, Russell Baze, Gary Stevens, and Eddie Delahoussaye. Hall of Fame trainers with Mile wins to their credit include Whittingham, Bobby Frankel, and Richard Mandella, plus future Hall of Famers Bob Baffert and Jerry Hollendorfer.

It would only be natural for local horsemen to resent the big names of racing, both equine and human, who ship in to claim the biggest prize at their meeting, and, of course, they do. At the same time, they have a keen appreciation for the role the invading stars have played in elevating the Mile's level of competition and its reputation.

"If it wasn't such a hard race to win, it wouldn't be such a big deal to win it," said trainer Larry Ross, who saddled Chum Salmon to win the 1985 Mile.

Throughout its history, while its purse grew to $250,000, the Longacres Mile has been a destination race. Owners and trainers from the region point their horses to the Mile all season long, and very few of them look past it. That may soon change, however. With the creation of the $1 million Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, which will be run for the first time this year at Monmouth Park on Oct. 26, the Longacres Mile could become an important prep for that race. Toward that end, the management of Emerald Downs, where the Mile has been run since 1996, first boosted this year's Mile purse to $300,000. Then with help from sponsor TVG, the purse was boosted to $400,000.

While none of this year's Mile participants will admit to looking toward to the Breeders' Cup, given the quality of the field for this year's Mile, it will almost surely take a terrific effort to win it. If the track remains as fast as it has been for most of this meeting, it may even take an effort that eclipses Sky Jack's track record of 1:33.

The connections of any horse coming off such an effort will have to at least take a look at the BC Dirt Mile, won't they?