Mike Puhich rapidly rattles off memories in an attempt to name his favorite Longacres Mile experience.
At first, the Thoroughbred trainer settles on the 1970 running of the Northwest’s most prestigious race, his words filled with passion and excitement when detailing Turbulator’s heart-breaking defeat 43 years ago.
Other races quickly follow – the speedy wire-to-wire performance by Eclipse Award winner Chinook Pass in 1983, Skywalker’s triumph in 1986, which ultimately proved to be a tuneup for his Breeders’ Cup Classic victory that same year.
Finally, he concedes he’s unable to narrow his list down to just one.
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“I don’t know. All of them, I guess,” Puhich says. “They’re all my favorite.”
The 78th edition of the Longacres Mile will to go the post Sunday at Emerald Downs. It’s the longest continuous professional sporting event in the state – dating to its first running at the race’s namesake track in 1935.
“This race,” Puhich said, “has always meant more to me than the Kentucky Derby.”
Puhich is not alone.
For the outsiders, usually the invaders hailing from Southern California, it’s a Grade III payday, a purse valued at $200,000 with the winner pocketing a $110,000 check.
But for many, Puhich included, it’s the pinnacle of their sport, a lifetime goal.
Puhich’s barn will play a large role in this year’s event because the trainer will saddle three horses – Hoist, Mr. Bowling and Tres Borrachos – in the full 12-horse field.
A native of Renton, Puhich basically grew up at Longacres. The roots of his family tree are embedded deep into the former track. He took out his trainer’s license in 1984, conditioning horses at Longacres until the track’s closure in 1992.
When Emerald Downs opened in 1996 he ran a split stable – running horses in Auburn and on the Southern California circuit before moving his operations to the Golden State in 2001.
“I never really left here, though,” Puhich said. “Whenever the Mile rolled around, I would tell anyone who had a horse (in Southern California) to nominate for that race. It’s just a special race to be a part of, there’s nothing like it.”
Puhich was more than just a part of last year’s race. He trained winner Taylor Said for owner Glen Todd.
“It was the best and most gratifying day I’ve had in horse racing,” said Todd, who owns Hoist and co-owns Mr. Bowling with Mark Dedomenico.
Puhich’s third Mile entry, Tres Borrachos, is the field’s richest earner at $1,030,973.
“I really like all three of our chances,” Puhich said, “but so much needs to happen to win this race, you need a good break, you need the right type of fractions for your horse and you need a lot of luck. It’s what makes the Mile so great.”
For Puhich to win his second consecutive Mile – a training feat accomplished only five times before in the race’s lengthy history – his three horses will face nine other rivals, including 7-to-2 morning-line favorite Politicallycorrect, under Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze.
Politicallycorrect ships in after last racing at Saratoga in New York.
“I think it’s the toughest race in the country to ship a horse in for and win,” Puhich said. “The list of great horses that on paper should have won this race is impressive.”
At Emerald Downs, that list includes the likes of Cleante (1996), Big Ten (2000), Tropic Storm (2008), Awesome Gem (2009) and the Gary Stevens-ridden Hesabull in 1997.
“If I ever want to get under Gary’s skin, I bring up the 1997 Longacres Mile,” Puhich said about longtime friend Stevens, an Idaho native who has won 11 Triple Crown races and eight Breeders’ Cup races in his Hall of Fame career. “Here’s a guy who’s done everything in this sport and to this day, losing the Mile 16 years ago still bothers him. That’s how much this race means to people.”
The Longacres Mile will go off at approximately 5:32 p.m. Sunday. A little more than 90 seconds after that, Puhich, win or lose, will have another Mile memory to add to his list.
“Last year I was really nervous before the race. Really nervous,” Puhich said. “This year a lot of people mentioned winning back-to-back Miles to me. I haven’t really thought about it too much. I am much calmer this year. Our horses are ready and if they run their races, we should do fine, but if we end up getting outrun, we get outrun. I’ve just enjoyed the work we’ve put in as a team leading up to this year’s race.”