Longacres: Contention runs deep

AUBURN, Wash. -- The showcase event on Emerald Downs's calendar, the Grade 3, $300,000 Longacres Mile, attracted a full field of 12 for its 74th running on Sunday. By all accounts, it's one of the deepest fields in years, with as many as 10 true contenders.

Heavy rains that turned the track sloppy Thursday were expected to give way to sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-70s, making a fast track likely for a 10-race card that also includes the $100,000 Emerald Distaff. Post time for the Mile is about 6 p.m. Pacific.

Speed, an essential element to racing at Emerald Downs, will be on full display. Atta Boy Roy, who equaled the six-furlong track record of 1:07.40 in his Emerald debut in early June, is the likely pacesetter, with two-time sprint-stakes winner Kruger Park and speedy California shipper Crafty Power among those in hot pursuit. The stalkers include Sierra Sunset, a smashing winner of the 2008 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park; Assessment, a two-time stakes winner at the meeting; and Teide, the top hope among two shippers from Canada.

While the action unfolds up front, Awesome Gem, the 2-1 morning-line favorite, and Wasserman, who captured the 2008 Mile with a furious rally, will lurk, ready to strike should the front-runners tire. If pace indeed makes the race, they should be menacing factors in the final furlong.

Atta Boy Roy, who drew post 9, will have to hustle to overcome a short run to the first turn. But trainer Valorie Lund is enthused about his chances. The 8-1 fourth choice in the morning line, Atta Boy Roy will be ridden for the first time by Ricky Frazier.

"This will be his third race off a layoff, and we've had time to set him up just the way we want to," Lund said of Atta Boy Roy, a half-brother to 2007 Mile winner The Great Face. "They'll be shooting for us on the front end, or close to it. They know they'll have to pressure him."

A Breeders' Cup Win and You're In race, the Mile guarantees the victor a spot in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 8. That carrot helped lure Sierra Sunset and Awesome Gem from California.

Sierra Sunset cruised to a five-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile Alamedan Handicap at Pleasanton in his last start, his second outing following a 15-month layoff caused by an ankle injury that bumped him from the Derby trail.

"What we thought was going to be a short layoff ended up being a long-term layoff, but the extra time paid off because he's come back strong," Bonde said. "He ran a huge race at Pleasanton and we didn't have to ask him for his best. He's plenty fit. He's a fresh horse. He's very dangerous in this kind of race. And if he can win this and get into the Breeders' Cup, it would make the rest of the year a lot easier."

Awesome Gem, the Mile's co-highweight with Autism Awareness at 122 pounds, finished a fast-closing second in the Grade 1 Eddie Read Stakes on the Del Mar turf in his last start. A Breeders' Cup berth would be his third; he finished third behind Curlin in the 2007 Classic, and sixth behind Goldikova in the 2008 Mile on turf. With Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze aboard for Southern California-based trainer Craig Dollase, Awesome Gem figures strongly in the outcome.

"I'll ride him the way he wants to run, but I don't think the flow of the race will work against him," Baze said. "There should be plenty of pace, and he's good enough to win it if he runs his race."

Autism Awareness, who paid $62.80 when he won the Grade 3 Berkeley Handicap at Golden Gate in May, and $126 when he captured the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows last spring, could spring an upset if he runs back to his best races for trainer Genaro Vallejo.

Also appealing at long odds is Trumpet Player Jay, an improving 4-year-old who pressed Zensational's pace in the Grade 1 Triple Bend Handicap last month at Hollywood Park. He's trained by Northwest native Mark Glatt.

Assessment, Emerald's top handicap horse since Day 1 of the meeting, when he defeated The Great Face and Wasserman in allowance company, was unlucky to draw the outside post position. Only one horse has won the Mile from the No. 12 post, and that was 74 years ago, when Coldwater captured the inaugural running from that gate in a 16-horse field.

Teide, who won the nine-furlong Lieutenant Governor's Handicap at Hastings in his last start and will break from the 8-hole, might have a more realistic shot than Assessment.

"The first time he sprinted this year, he got shuffled back and into some traffic," trainer Dino Condilenios said. "In his last two wins, he was more of a stalker-type, just in behind the speed. And you usually need to be near the lead to win the Longacres Mile."