Especially for those in the local Thoroughbred industry, there is no bigger thrill than winning the Longacres Mile, a tradition that dates to 1935. The race also is prestigious enough to attract talent from California and beyond.
How big is the Longacres Mile?
Let Herman Sarkowsky, the man who co-founded the Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers, tell you.
When his horse, No Giveaway, won the Mile in 2005, Sarkowsky said after the race that it meant more to him than having Phone Chatter win a Breeders’ Cup race in 1993.
“This is my home here,” said Sarkowsky, who died in 2014. “It’s the thrill of winning here and doing it with a Washington-bred.”
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On Sunday, at approximately 5:51 p.m., 12 horses at Emerald Downs will get a chance to etch themselves into history by winning the race that has been the Northwest’s biggest since 1935.
Let Jeffrey Sengara from Vancouver, B.C., tell you. In 1981, he came south to the Longacres Mile with his father, who trained Mr. Prime Minister, a 112-1 longshot. Predictably, the horse was never a factor.
But that experience fueled the son’s passion to someday own a horse that would win the Mile. In 1998, he claimed a horse named Budroyale for $50,000, with the idea of running him in the Longacres Mile.
Budroyale finished seventh in the 1998 Mile, but in 1999, Sengara’s dream was fulfilled: Budroyale won. Sengara choked up after the race.
“It’s kind like in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ when (Jimmy Stewart) comes back from that make-believe world,” Sengara told reporters after the race. “He realizes what he has. The exhilaration of how he feels in that moment when he runs in and his kids and his wife were there and everyone says, ‘Everything’s OK. We’re going to save the bank.’
“It’s a feeling like that,” he said. “That’s about the best way I can describe it.”
“I think that anybody that’s grown up in the Northwest, that’s all we hear about from the time we hit the racetrack, is the Mile,” Baze said. “It’s important to all the people on the backside who have spent their whole life back there and some of them never get a chance to be in the race. And when you happen to get lucky and win it for one of those individuals, it really makes you feel good.
“I remember (the Mile wins) like it was yesterday. You just don’t forget those kind of days. Just like you can even still smell the smells. It’s not an easy race to win, and winning it is momentous in any rider’s life.”
Gary Stevens, the Hall of Fame jockey who was the leading rider at Longacres in 1983 and 1984, agrees. He remembers reading about the Longacres Mile as a teenager while riding in Boise, Idaho.
“And then I watched Gary Baze, my ex-brother in law, win the Longacres Mile on the great champion Trooper Seven (in 1980 and 1981). It was definitely a race that was on my bucket list,” Stevens said last week.
Stevens accomplished the feat in 1991, aboard Louis Cyphre, and it remains a highlight for him, even after winning each of the Triple Crown races three times.
Or listen to Joe Withee, the director of publicity and broadcasting at Emerald Downs, who has missed just one Mile (1977) since seeing his first one in 1972.
“It’s just a different feeling, and the anticipation in the 15 to 20 minutes beforehand,” he said. “You remember where you were standing. It’s one heck of a minute and 34 seconds.”
Big from the start
Longacres racetrack in Renton opened in 1933, and owner Joe Gottstein came up with an idea to get his track some big publicity. It would hold the richest race in the country for one mile, a distance a bit too long for sprinters and a bit too short for route horses.
His plan worked. Sixteen horses were entered into the first Longacres Mile in 1935, with a purse of $12,350. That was enough to attract a stellar field, including Biff, a grandson of Man O’ War who had just won the $5,000 Chicago Handicap.
At 5:10 p.m. on Aug. 24 that year, the gates opened for the first Longacres Mile. Biff finished second, upset by Coldwater. But that didn’t stop some of the country’s best horses from coming year after year.
For decades, the Longacres Mile had one of the biggest purses for that distance in the country, and the race has attracted not only great horses, but some of the greatest riders and trainers in the history of the sport.
Twelve Hall of Fame riders — including Eddie Arcaro, Bill Hartack, Willie Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr. and Stevens — have rode winners in the Longacres Mile.
Bobby Frankel, Charlie Whittingham, Richard Mandella and Bob Baffert have trained winners.
For local jockeys such as Baze, it was a chance to see how they compared against the sport’s icons.
“We would see Shoemaker, Pincay and Sandy Hawley riding in the Mile, and it was always something they wanted to do,” Baze said. “It was fun, because we never really got to ride against those guys unless they came up here.”
Of course, the legends don’t always win the Longacres Mile. It seems, just as often, the local star with a local jockey and a local trainer claims the big prize. Local trainer Jim Penney, who died in February, trained a record five winners of the race.
Every year, it’s the same theme: the local horses vs. the more heralded invaders.
Howard Belvoir, who trains locally based Barkley, a top contender in this year’s race, believes Emerald Downs horses have a strong home-track advantage in the Mile. Belvoir came close to winning it in 1974, when the speedy Red Eye Express finished second.
Thirty-four years later, Wasserman made a great rally in the center of the track, winning the Longacres Mile by a neck, finally giving Belvoir that elusive win.
“I am not one to jump up and down, but it’s a great feat,” said Belvoir, who got back-to-back wins in the Mile when Assessment won in 2009. “It doesn’t hit you until later on. You see the running of the race later (on tape), and it hits you.”
A return to glory
The Longacres Mile had perhaps its greatest decade in the 1980s. Local star Trooper Seven won back-to-back races to begin the decade, with his second win drawing a record crowd of 25,031 that somehow managed to squeeze into the cozy Renton racetrack.
The race became big enough that it survived the 1992 closing of the racetrack it was named for, but it definitely took a hit.
For three years it was held at Yakima Meadows. The purse fell from $293,800 in the final year at Longacres to $81,800 in the first year at Yakima, and the quality of the field took a predictable drop.
But the race regained its original luster when it came to Emerald Downs after the Auburn racetrack opened in 1996.
Baffert, who trained 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, won the first Longacres Mile held at Emerald with Isitingood, one of the nation’s best horses that year. And once again, the Longacres Mile was the king of the Northwest.
That was very important to Ron Crockett, who founded Emerald Downs and, like every other owner in the area, had longed to win the Mile.
Crockett also wanted to keep the name the same.
“On Day 1, I was talking with the Alhadeffs (who were longtime owners of Longacres) and telling them we would always keep that name as a remembrance.”
The Longacres Mile continues to thrive. There are many Grade III stakes races in the country these days, but you would have a hard time finding one with as much prestige and history as the Longacres Mile.
Because of that, Stevens said he thinks the race deserves a higher grade.
“Just look at all of the great horses and all the great riders who have won it,” he said.
Hollendorfer will have two horses again in this year’s Mile: defending champion Point Piper and Seattle Serenade.
“A horse’s pedigree after winning that race is much better than it is before they win it,” he said. “The Longacres Mile has an awesome reputation.”
Vince Bruun, director of media relations at Emerald Downs, goes to Southern California a month before the race in most years, looking to drum up interest in the Longacres Mile. But it’s an easy sell.
“Everyone there knows the Mile and its historical significance,” Bruun said. “Trainers like Bob Baffert are very aware of the race.”
For Crockett, his dream of winning a Longacres Mile finally came true in 2007 when two horses he owned, The Great Face and Raise the Bluff, finished one-two. Crockett had won richer races, such as Vaudeville’s win in the Grade I Secretariat Stakes outside Chicago in 1994, but none meant more to him than winning the Longacres Mile.
“It was the most meaningful race we have ever won,” he said. “In any given state, and in any sport, you are stoked to win the state championship. If you are from Washington, you have your sights set on winning the Longacres Mile. To win that race at home, in your own state and with a homebred, it’s very special.”
|82nd Longacres Mile|
|The post position and morning-line odds for Sunday’s $200,000, Grade III race at Emerald Downs.|
|1, Bistraya||Amadeo Perez||Second to favorite Mach One Rules in last race||12-1|
|2, Point Piper||Julien Couton||Has regressed since easily winning Mile last year||9-2|
|3, Gold Rush Dancer||Evin Roman||Won three stakes in California last year||4-1|
|4, Black Sona||David Martin||Even his best race ever is probably not enough||30-1|
|5, Papa Frank||Jose Zunino||Claimed for $4,000 last year; seems overmatched||30-1|
|6, Seattle Serenade||W. Antongeorgi||Could get easy, early lead. Trainer won last year||8-1|
|7, Dedicated to You||L. Camacho-Flores||Seventh in last year’s Mile; not in great form||30-1|
|8, Stryker Phd||Kevin Orozco||Expecting big performance; needs a hot early pace||12-1|
|9, Mach One Rules||Isaias Enriquez||Trainer Frank Lucarelli has chance at first Mile win||7-2|
|10, Chief of Staff||Rocco Bowen||Off since finishing 9th in May’s Churchill Handicap||6-1|
|11, Barkley||Javier Matias||Hard-trying horse has a tough post position||5-1|
|12, Togrammashousewego||Eswan Flores||Not good enough to overcome this wide post||20-1|
|Scott Hanson’s picks: 1st, Seattle Serenade; 2nd, Mach One Rules; 3rd: Stryker Phd; 4th: Barkley|
|Before the 75th running of the Longacres Mile in 2010, a panel of five experts voted on their five most memorable Longacres Miles and the five greatest Longacres Mile winners. Here are those results.|
|Five most memorable races|
|1. Trooper Seven||1981||The first to win back-to-back Miles|
|2. Wasserman||2008||Jennifer Whitaker, with a late charge, becomes first female rider to win the Mile|
|3. Chinook Pass||1983||The champion sprinter wins by 6 lengths in his final race|
|4. Bad ‘N Big||1978||Willie Shoemaker wins his first Mile aboard the tough invader|
|5. Chum Salmon||1985||The only Washington-bred in the field rallies from way back|
|Five greatest Mile winners|
|1. Skywalker||1986||He went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic that fall|
|2. Chinook Pass||1983||The only Washington-bred to win an Eclipse Award|
|3. Trooper Seven||1980-81||He was one of the most popular Northwest horses in history|
|4. Judge Angelucci||1987||Star from Southern California went on to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic|
|5. Sky Jack||2003||The Hollywood Gold Cup winner was incredible on days when he was on|