The Longacres Mile: A Beautiful Day for a Beleaguered Industry

It's impossible not to notice the parallel career arcs of the thoroughbred racing and newspaper industries. Once upon a time -- that time being the early- to mid-20th Century -- both stood high atop their respective heaps. Horse racing was the top sporting beat at every daily in the country, and those dailies were in high demand on the streets and at the doorstep, as broadcast media was still in its infancy. Things have obviously changed; with a handful of elite exceptions in both industries, newspapers are fighting to remain in print, while most racetracks have pegged their hopes for survival on gaining regulatory approval for other types of on-premises gaming ("racinos" is what such tracks have come to be known as).

Emerald Downs is no Churchill or Saratoga, but it seems to have avoided the doomsday scenario facing tracks of similar size around the country. And the packed house for yesterday's Longacres Mile did nothing to diminish this sunny little anomaly. The 12-horse field was deep and evenly-matched, with a strong case to be made for even the 40-1 longshots at the gate. Local horses entered the race with a four-year streak of claiming the Mile from out-of-town shippers, but the fact that the race's winner now automatically qualifies for a Breeders' Cup slot would make keeping that streak alive all the more daunting.

The most formidable shipper was Awesome Gem, a California-based horse who'd finished third in the 2007 Breeders' Cup Classic, generally considered to be the most competitive single race in the land. Gem went off as a 2-1 favorite, with the added benefit of having Russell Baze -- a local legend who is the sport's all-time winningest jockey -- aboard. Topping a talented lineup of local horses (including last year's champ, Wasserman) was Assessment (7-1 odds), ridden by Emerald Downs' all-time winningest jockey, Booger Mitchell.

Assessment broke from the 12 post, dubious because no horse had won from that far-outside position since 1935. Local rival Atta Boy Roy set the quickest half-mile pace in Longacres Mile history, and it was at that halfway point where Assessment began to make a steady, well-conceived move, taking the lead midway down the homestretch, with Baze and Awesome Gem close at his heels. Assessment prevailed by a little less than a length at the wire, touching off a convulsive, emotional celebration by Mitchell to rival Calvin Borel's gloriously passionate Derby Day freak-outs.

Fans wagered a single-race record $796,268 on the Longacres Mile, breaking the mark of $703,963 set in 2003. The total mutuel handle--$3,053,392--was the second highest in track history. If there's a whiff of recession still in the air, it blew well wide of Auburn yesterday.

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