08/12/2009 11:00PM

Visiting the Mile's memory lane


DEL MAR, Calif. - By the time I found out that Emerald Downs was staging wiener dog races on Friday to kick off its big Longacres Mile weekend, it was too late to put my 8-year-old dachshund Angel on the same plane with Southern California's Mile runners Awesome Gem and Trumpet Player Jay to ship north for the big event.

That is probably just as well, since Angel has yet to get over the Los Alamitos wiener dog ordeal we put her through seven years ago (let's just say there is a photographer who will never forget her). Racetracks are meant for horses, anyway, not those stubby-legged little yappers, and the Longacres Mile is endowed with enough local appeal to carry any weekend's worth of celebration. Still, them wiener dogs sure look funny.

The Emerald Downs meet has been rolling since April, benefiting from mostly good weather, and holding firm compared with last year's ontrack attendance figures. Handle is down - join the club - but a warm, clear weekend and a competitive field for the Mile should provide a high point to the season.

The Northwest circuit always has enjoyed a reputation for nuturing talented riders and sending them forth into the world. In that regard, traditional barriers have often been breached. There are three women among the top 10 riders at Emerald Downs, which should be no surprise, since the Northwest is where both Vicky Aragon and Sandi Gann made their marks. Their heirs currently include apprentice Cassie Papineau, Deborah Hoonan-Trujillo, and Jennifer Whitaker, who rode Wasserman to victory in the 2008 running of the Longacres Mile.

Wasserman and Whitaker will be back on Sunday to defend their title against a full field, with Awesome Gem the obvious favorite. Not only does he come out of a sharp runner-up effort in the Eddie Read Handicap at Del Mar, he is getting Russell Baze in the saddle, which is never a bad thing. Baze has won the Longacres Mile three times, while his father, Joe Baze, won it once, and cousin Gary Baze has won a record five runnings of the Mile. Another Baze, Michael, will be in town Sunday to ride Trumpet Player Jay.

It is easy to dismiss the Mile as a minor event in a distant corner of the North American racing world, even though it carries a $300,000 purse and automatic qualification for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile field. At least it's easy until the history of the race is examined.

For some reason, many of the world's best jockeys have wandered north and west to win the Mile. Must have been for the seafood. Eddie Arcaro won the race in 1950 aboard Two and Twenty, when the winner's pot was barely $9,500. Before Arcaro, Ralph Neves won it in 1938, and after them came Bill Hartack, Johnny Longden, John Sellers, Sandy Hawley, Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay, Gary Stevens, and Eddie Delahoussaye, as well as Russell Baze. Winning the Mile did not prevent any of them from getting into the Hall of Fame.

There will be an argument, but the best horse ever to win the Mile would come from a short list that includes Breeders' Cup Classic winner Skywalker, Eclipse Award sprint champion Chinook Pass, and the brilliant Viking Spirit, who won the Carter, the Californian, and pushed Native Diver to a world's record seven furlongs in the 1965 running of the Los Angeles Handicap.

Then again, there would not be much quarrel in choosing such major-league stakes winners as Judge Angelucci, Simply Majestic, Wild Wonder, Budroyale, or Sky Jack, or even Mike Pegram's Isitingood, who at one point in his career ran a mile on the grass at Santa Anita Park in 1:32 flat.

Laffit Pincay will be at Emerald Downs on Saturday to sign his autobiography, then stick around to preside as honorary steward for Sunday's Mile. Any time Pincay hits town is an event, and Laffit loves to travel and connect with fans and old friends. This visit, though, should be special.

Ask him any day of the week, any time of day, and Pincay will always tell you that the fastest horse he ever rode was the gelding Chinook Pass, the one and only Washington-bred to win an Eclipse Award.

Pincay and Chinook Pass won the 1983 Longacres Mile, then run at the old Longacres to the north of Emerald Downs in Renton. They won it by six lengths in what amounted to a one-horse parade, despite the fact there there were 13 horses scattered behind them.

"Before I rode him in that Mile, I watched a film of him going two turns the year before, I think in the same race," Pincay recalled. "The boy rode him perfect that day and he still finished second, so I thought maybe he just couldn't get the mile."

At that point, Pincay had won six stakes on Chinook Pass, and was coming off an eight-length romp in the Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar.

"I also thought, maybe he just didn't want to be rated," Pincay went on. "So I decided not to fight him. You know how fast he was. When I used to go into the gate with him, I wouldn't breathe. He had the quickest legs. When he left the gate in the Mile, I couldn't have rated him if I wanted to. He just opened up and kept on going." They won by six.

The '83 Longacres was the last hurrah for Chinook Pass. He went into retirement a national champion and a Washington hero. These days, he is a healthy 30-year-old pensioner cared for by Jill Hallin at her farm in nearby Maple Valley, Wash., and on Saturday they will be getting a visit from Laffit Pincay.