09/28/2007 12:00AM

Owners' Handicap has prestige far beyond its purse

EmailAUBURN, Wash. - The $22,300 Owners' Handicap, which will be renewed on Sunday for the 34th time in 41 years, has at least two distinctions.

Run at five furlongs, it is the only race in the Northwest, and perhaps anywhere, that is run under riders' weights. The owners, or more often their trainers, determine the weights their horses will carry when they name a rider.

That creates a tremendous one-race demand for light riders, and no regular rider at Longacres or Emerald Downs was lighter than Vicky Baze, formerly Vicky Aragon. Baze won the Owners' Handicap a record five times, tacking 98 pounds aboard Super Seven in 1989, Mr. Easy Money in 1994 and Jazzy Mac in 2000, 97 pounds on Linear in 1998, and 96 pounds on Bay Runner in 1999. She nearly won a sixth Owner's Handicap on Im Portit in 1993, but, according to some, she fell short because she was too fat.

"Im Portit was trained by my father-in-law, Carl Baze, and he named me to ride at 96 pounds," recalled Vicky Baze, who now serves as horsemen's liaison at Emerald Downs. "I was a little heavier than that at the time, so I had to reduce for the first time in my life to try to make the weight. I only made 98 pounds, so they listed me at two pounds over, which was also a first. Anyway, we ran second in a close finish, and Carl always said we got beat because I was too heavy."

For her own part, Baze doesn't feel her weight advantage contributed significantly to any of her Owners' Handicap wins.

"Every time I won it, I was on the best horse," she said. "That was all there was to it."

The Owners' Handicap's other distinction is that it is simply the best race in the Northwest never to be accorded the status of a stakes. The Owners' Handicap, which was designed to determine the fastest horse on the grounds, has always been open to all comers, with no nominations and no entry fees. It has never had a purse commensurate with the quality of its fields.

Four Longacres Mile winners have won the Owners' Handicap. Praise Jay earned $2,900 for winning the 1969 edition, Trooper Seven earned $8,250 in 1981, Chinook Pass earned $6,600 in 1982 with a world-record clocking of 55.20 seconds, and Snipledo earned $11,000 in 1990.

Despite its relatively small purse, the Owners' Handicap has consistently drawn the fastest sprinters on the grounds. Trainer Howard Belvoir, who saddled the legendary Red Eye Express to win the 1974 renewal, explained the lure.

"It was always a fun race, and it was always a very tough race to win," he said. "Red Eye Express was as fast as they come, but he ran it in two or three times and only won it once. When you win that race, you've earned your bragging rights."

Belvoir will shoot for bragging rights again on Sunday, when he saddles two stakes winners for the Owners' Handicap. He intends to send out Courting Seattle and Immigration.

"Immigration can run right up on the lead if he breaks, Courting Seattle can stalk from close up," he said. "I should have a pretty good shot."

Little doubt about most championships

Divisional titles have been all but decided going into the final weekend of the meeting, with a couple of exceptions.

Smarty Deb has dominated in the 2-year-old filly division, as have Shampoo in the 3-year-old filly division and Mulcahy in the 3-year-old colt and gelding set. Let's just unanimously declare those three to be champions. The same goes for The Great Face in the handicap division. He won three races at the stand, including the Grade 3 Longacres Mile, and the Mile is everything in Northwest racing.

The 2-year-old colt-and-gelding title will take care of itself in this weekend's Gottstein Futurity. If Gallon wins it, completing a sweep of the Lads and the Gottstein, he will have earned the same recognition that Schoolin You got when he won the same two races in 2004. Otherwise, the award must go to Margo's Gift, who has won 4 of 5 starts going into the Gottstein, including a trio of stakes.

That leaves the older filly-and-mare division and the sprinting set to argue about, and there is no shortage of cases to be made. Six different older fillies or mares won the six stakes for the division at the stand, and none played a major role throughout the year. Gemstone Rush won the most important stakes, the $100,000 Emerald Distaff, but she was beaten rather handily by Hit a Star in the Belle Roberts on Washington Cup Day. Give my vote to Victory Script, who never even contested a stakes but nevertheless defeated Hit a Star quite convincingly in both of their meetings.

Victory Script also rates as the meet's top claimer after winning all seven of her starts at the meeting, and she might have rated consideration as best sprinter if she had won the closing day Owners' Handicap. Alas, she wasn't entered.

"I'm afraid it would stress her too much," said trainer Roy Lumm, who plans to run Victory Script in the six-furlong Luck Be a Lady Stakes at Bay Meadows on Oct. 13.

With sprint stakes winner Chickasaw Park in it, the Owners' Handicap could still decide sprinting honors. Barring a spectacular effort by Chickasaw Park, however, I am leaning toward Westsideclyde.

Westsideclyde beat the best sprinters on the grounds, including The Great Face and Starbird Road, in the 6 1/2-furlong FSN Handicap before beating the best milers in the one-mile Budweiser-Emerald. He was then sidelined by an untimely injury, but at that time he was widely regarded as the best horse of any age on the grounds. He deserves to be remembered with some kind of an award, and best sprinter is the only one available.