06/20/2006 12:00AM

R. Associate on familiar path

R. Associate, winning the 2005 Lt. Governor's, is pointing to this year's renewal on July 1.

AUBURN, Wash. - R. Associate has found a home in trainer Vince Gibson's barn at Emerald Downs, but that doesn't mean he is suddenly averse to travel. That was the message from British Columbia-based owner Garth Weeks in the immediate aftermath of R. Associate's upset in Sunday's $75,000 Emerald Handicap at a mile, and Gibson confirmed as much Tuesday morning.

"I've talked to Mr. Weeks several times since the race, and we're thinking pretty seriously about taking him up to Hastings Park for the Lt. Governor's on July 1," said Gibson. "It's not a done deal. We'll have to watch him closely and see how he trains between now and then, but that's the way we are leaning."

R. Associate, a 6-year-old son of Crafty Prospector who was purchased privately by Weeks early last year, won last season's renewal of the 1 1/8-mile, $125,000 Lt. Governor's after running third to Mr. Makah in the Emerald. He then ran third in the nine-furlong Mt. Rainier Breeders' Cup Handicap before finishing a troubled eighth in the Grade 3, $250,000 Longacres Mile.

"We'd like to stick to the same schedule this year," said Gibson. "The Longacres Mile is definitely on his agenda."

At 28-1, R. Associate was the longest shot in a field of seven for Sunday's Emerald. After he won by a length over Norm's Nephew in a stakes record 1:34.20, it was obvious that the fans had underestimated his chances. They were not alone.

"I really didn't think he was ready to go a mile against the kind of horses he ran against on Sunday," said Gibson. "He hadn't raced since January and he had been out of training for two months before I got him in the spring, so I was looking for a shorter race against softer company for his first start back. I actually entered him in an allowance race, but when it didn't fill I had no option but to run him in the stakes. He ran a lot better than I thought he would."

Immediately after the Emerald, Gibson predicted that R. Associate would be a very tired horse in the morning, but Gibson said on Tuesday that he was wrong about that, too.

"He came out of the race in better shape than I expected," said Gibson. "He cooled out well and ate up all of his feed, and he was pretty lively in the morning. I'm giving him three days off before he goes back to the track on Thursday, and we'll know more then. So far, though, he looks really good."

R. Associate has won 9 of 37 starts while racing over 11 different tracks for 10 different trainers. He has started just once for Gibson, but he seems to like his new home. R. Associate earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 96 in the Emerald, and the $41,250 winner's prize boosted his earnings to $293,502.

Morethanaprincess dominates in local debut

Another horse who appears to like Emerald Downs is Morethanaprincess, a 3-year-old daughter of More than Ready who made her local debut in last Thursday's 6 1/2-furlong allowance feature. Under rider Ricky Frazier, Morethanaprincess took command with a quick move on the turn and won geared down by 5 1/4 lengths. The winning time was 1:16.

"It was the kind of effort we were hoping to see from her," said trainer Grant Forster. "We were tempted to run her in the mile stakes here next weekend, but she didn't work at Santa Anita after her last race in Southern California and she had only worked a couple of times here. I thought it would be wiser to run her going short against allowance company, and I don't regret doing that. She got a nice confidence builder, and she'll be ready to join the stakes ranks in the Kent Handicap."

The Kent Handicap, a 1 1/16-mile race to be run July 23, will mark the first attempt around two turns for Morethanaprincess, who won her debut going 5 1/2 furlongs against maiden special weight company at Santa Anita in March. She then finished sixth in the Grade 3 Santa Paula at 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita and ninth in a 5 1/2-furlong turf test at Hollywood before shipping here late last month.

Morethanaprincess could prep for the Kent in a one-mile allowance race Saturday, July 8, but Forster said he is more inclined to train her up to the stakes.

Track has come a long way since '96

Emerald Downs will be celebrating its 10th anniversary all season, but the festivities will be at their most intense this week. The track opened on June 20, 1996, and at that time the question was whether it could survive after western Washington had gone without racing for three years. The question loomed larger after it became apparent that as much as a third of the fan base that had patronized Longacres had simply disappeared.

Emerald Downs did survive, thanks in large part to the determination of president and majority owner Ron Crockett, and last year it began to prosper by turning its first small profit. The trend is continuing this season, and the track's future now seems assured.