07/15/2010 3:31PM

Emerald & Neon

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Every July I try to take a summer road trip to freshen up before Saratoga, and this year's version was a western swing that took me to Seattle and Las Vegas over the last week. I know, tough gig.

Emerald2 As constant readers know, I am inordinately fond of Emerald Downs, the picturesque oval just outside Seattle in Auburn, Washington. How can you not like a track whose owner, Ron Crockett, has a SAM machine in the corporate conference room so that business never gets in the way of his horseplaying?

Emerald runs live racing from April through September, and it seems that the majority of the largely Washington-bred horse population gets a vacation the other six months a year while the facility remains open for simulcasting. It's not uncommon to see races filled with older veterans whose lengthy career pp lines all begin with an EmD. 

Even so, Emerald is having the same struggles as almost every other track in America -- shorter fields and fewer available horses due mainly to owners getting out of the game due to shrinking disposable income in the current economic climate. There are more six-horse fields than in recent years, but unlike many such events in New York or California, these fields are rarely mismatches involving an odds-on favorite and two or three hopless entrants who have been hustled to make the race go. Instead, there's rarely more than a single throwout even in the short fields, and there's a throwback feeling to the many races where the top three or four contenders have been facing each other time and again.

After a morning handicapping seminar with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of local players who were at the track nearly three hours before the first live race to play the eastern simulcasts, I got involved in the Summit of Speed pick-4 and somehow managed to have it for only a buck despite successfully trying to beat 1-9 D'Funnybone in the Carry Back and liking turnback Jessica Is Back in the Princess Rooney. For reasons that escape me at the moment, I used Azalea winner Pica Slew as only a C, leaving me alive only to winning favorite Big Drama and turnback Mambo Meister, who unfortunately fell a length and a half short of catching the chalk. I spent the rest of the afternoon frittering back most of the proceeds via bad opinions on the Emerald races.

Elliottsoysters On the Seattle tourism front, I highly recommend the oysters at Elliott's on the harbor, but was disappointed with an attempted visit to the iconic Space Needle, where an $18 admission fee for a half-hour wait to ride an elevator chased me away. This was not, however, the worst pricing I've seen at a tourist attraction this year. On a recent trip to San Diego I had time to kill before a dinner and since Sea World was on the way I decided to check it out. The cheapest adult admission price to spend an hour looking around the place: $69.95. Even though the last Shamu show of the day was over.

On Sunday it was on to Vegas, where the Main Event of the World Series of Poker was beginning without me. Maybe I'll play it once someday just to say I did, but the entry fee can be put to better use at Saratoga than in buying what amounts to a $10,000 lottery ticket.

IMG_0298 The influx of WSOP players, however, meant that the places on the Strip I usually like to stay in Vegas were sold out, so I decided to revisit Old Vegas, i.e. Downtown, where you can get palatial accomodations for the price of a couple of twin beds on the Strip.

The two-story suite at the Golden Nugget with the spiral staircase and private steambath was cheap and sweet indeed, but the price you pay is being in the middle of the "Fremont Street Experience," which rattles the windows from sundown till midnight with a disco-cover band and a Kiss-themed lightshow projected onto the roof that now bridges Fremont Street. Fortunately, the Nugget's poker room was out of range, but sadly was stocked only with WSOP-shunning locals who were tight as drums.

Across the street at Binion's, the poker room was empty. The WSOP began there in 1970 with just six players when the facility was called the Horseshoe. Participation in the $10k buy-in Main Event peaked at 8,773 players in 2006; this year's edition, currently in its fifth day at the Rio, drew 7,319 entrants, with $68.7 million of the $73.1 million in entry fees going into a prize pool that includes an $8.9 million first prize -- a takeout rate of just 6 percent.

Anyway, I'm back home now with a lot of Belmont racing to catch up on since Saratoga opens in a mere...can it really be only eight days until the first Hattie's fried-chicken sandwich of 2010?