AUBURN — Bob Rondeau, the voice of the Washington Huskies for so many years, had little voice left after cheering so loudly for his horse.
Jockey Rocco Bowen was crying, saying, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” while hugging Rondeau.
The dreams of both men came true Sunday afternoon at Emerald Downs.
Background, ridden by Bowen and owned by Rondeau and his wife Molly, rallied relentlessly in the stretch to run down Windribbon just before the wire and win the 86th Longacres Mile by a head.
“I am over the moon,” said Rondeau, the UW football and basketball radio announcer for nearly four decades before retiring in 2017. “This is as high of a moment as I’ve ever had in any sporting endeavor in my lifetime. It is otherworldly. I am thrilled beyond belief.”
Bowen, who won the Emerald Downs riding titles three consecutive years from 2016-18 before moving to bigger tracks in the Midwest, said the Mile was the race he has wanted to win more than any other.
“I can’t believe it,” Bowen said again, still in tears minutes after the race, hugging fans, signing autographs and pausing for photos while walking off the track. “I wanted to win this race more than the Kentucky Derby because this is home for me. To win your home race, it means everything to me.”
For a long time in the stretch, it looked like Windribbon would be the winner of the Grade III, $100,000 race. Kevin Orozco had Windribbon in third early, then blew by Papa’s Golden Boy and Anyportinastorm in the turn and took a few-length lead.
But Bowen wasn’t going to give up, and he said the horse wouldn’t quit either despite being several lengths behind with an eighth of a mile left.
“No, no I was not,” Bowen said when asked if he was worried that he would not catch Windribbon. “He’s a ride-and-die horse. He will ride with you and he will die with you. He never gives up and I couldn’t give up on him, because he never gives up on me.
“When I got him in the clear, and I could see that horse starting to die, I knew he was going to run and hunt him down.”
Orozco said his horse, Windribbon, “started to stagger so I knew I was in trouble.”
“I knew (Background) was a hard horse to beat, but my horse ran a hell of a race,” Orozco added about Windribbon, who went off with 12-1 odds.
Background, trained by Mike Puhich, was the favorite and paid $6.60 to win. The 4-year-old gelding ran the mile in 1 minute, 36.67 seconds.
For Rondeau, winning the Mile, the top horse race in Washington, has been a dream for decades.
His dad introduced him to horse racing in the 1970s and his first work as a sports announcer was at Turf Paradise in 1977. That same year, Rondeau watched the Longacres Mile for the first time.
“I saw Theologist win (the 1977 Longacres Mile), and I thought how great would that be,” Rondeau said. “I’ve been involved as a witness in the history of this race since 1977, and to actually be a part of that history is incredible.”
Rondeau’s first horse he owned locally was Niki Tora in 1983. Puhich took over as trainer of that horse, and she gave him his first win as a trainer. That started a long relationship between owner and trainer.
“This is the Bob and Rocco show,” Puhich said after the race, deflecting the attention to the rider and owner. It was the second Mile victory for Puhich, who trained Taylor Said in 2012.
For Bowen, he erased a very big item on his bucket list.
“There were just two races I hadn’t won (at Emerald), the Mile and the Gottstein Futurity,” Bowen said, referencing the top race of the season for 2-year-olds at Emerald Downs. “I just got one, and I’ll for sure be coming back to ride in the Gottstein to try and win that one.”