05/03/2012 12:41PM

Emerald Downs: Action begins early on Kentucky Derby Day

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AUBURN, Wash. -- Kentucky Derby Day begins bright and early at Emerald Downs – doors open Saturday at 7 a.m. to accommodate simulcast wagering on the 13-race Derby Day card at Churchill Downs.

Live racing at Emerald begins at 1 p.m., an hour earlier than usual, and the Derby is scheduled to go at about 3:24 p.m. Pacific.

Derby Day is always happy bedlam at Emerald Downs. Those arriving with festive Derby hats receive free admission, the track will stage a slew of family-style events, including pony rides, in the park adjacent to the paddock, and mint juleps will be served in Emerald’s many cocktail lounges.

As for a rooting interest in the Derby, there are precious few local connections for Washington racing fans. Mike Harrington, a former veterinarian at Longacres who became a full-time trainer in 1993, will saddle Creative Cause in the Kentucky Derby. It will be the first Derby starter for Harrington, 71, an Oregon native who is based in Southern California, and Creative Cause is expected to be one of the wagering favorites.

Mario Gutierrez, a top rider at Hastings in Vancouver, British Columbia, in recent seasons, steps into racing’s big time with a Derby mount aboard I’ll Have Another, recent hero of the Santa Anita Derby with Gutierrez aboard. Gutierrez, 25, is a native of Mexico who moved from Hastings to Southern California this past winter. His agent is Ivan Puhich, an 85-year-old with deep ties to the Pacific Northwest.

Earlier on the Derby card, Smiling Tiger will start in the seven-furlong Churchill Downs, a Grade 2 stakes race whose previous winners include Emerald six-furlong track-record holder Atta Boy Roy in 2010. Smiling Tiger, who races for San Francisco Bay Area businessmen Alan Klein and Phil Lebherz, was purchased at the 2008 Washington summer yearling sale. He was bred by Rodney Orr, who has a string of horses at Emerald.

Emerald’s live cards for Saturday and Sunday were slow to come together. The track was planning for eight races Saturday and a 10-race card on Sunday, but entries for both days trickled in slowly and the draw for both days, normally taken on Wednesday morning, was pushed back to Thursday. Through the first nine days of the meeting, average field size at Emerald is 6.18 horses per race, down 8 percent from the corresponding period in 2011.