07/13/2012 3:53PM

Emerald Downs: Duel with Portland Meadows could make for long, hot summer


AUBURN, Wash. – There will be no cheering Sunday at Emerald Downs when Portland Meadows launches its new summer meeting 150 miles to the south.

After coexisting peacefully for the past 17 years in an informal Northwest racing circuit – Portland in the winter, Seattle in the summer – the tracks are now competing for the wagering dollar, for jockeys and trainers, and most important, for a diminishing supply of horses.

Participation at both venues has declined markedly in recent years. As recently as 2008, a total of 6,362 horses started at Emerald Downs. That number was down to 4,898 last summer, a decline of 23 percent. Portland Meadows, which augments its program with Quarter Horse racing, experienced a 16 percent decline over the same period.

The timing of Portland Meadows’ summer launch could have an immediate negative impact at Emerald Downs, which is scheduled to add a fourth day to its weekly racing calendar beginning Thursday. Portland Meadows plans to race three days a week – Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.

Instead of trying to fill three cards per week at Emerald, the competing tracks and Northwest horsemen will try to fill seven beginning this coming week. If there’s a track official or horseman at Emerald Downs who thinks that’s a good idea, he or she has yet to step forward.

“Even if Portland didn’t run, I think Thursday would have been difficult for us,” the president of Emerald Downs, Ron Crockett, said this week. “What we’ll do when we go to four days, you control it by the number of races you run each day. We’ll see over the long haul what happens, but it’s not a great situation with either track. I suppose it makes sense to them, but I don’t quite understand it.”

In the months leading up to the track’s opening, Portland Meadows officials said they would actively recruit horses from California and other states, but on Sunday’s opening-day program, the seven Thoroughbred races include only two shippers from California – and 15 horses siphoned from Emerald Downs.

While few of those runners will be missed for their quality, bottom-level claimers play a vital role by helping to build purses for the rest of Emerald’s racing program. In the two weeks ending last Sunday, for example, 21 of the 62 races at Emerald were for horses at the lowest levels – $2,500 claimers, $5,000 maidens, $7,500 maiden 3-year-olds – and those races accounted for 37 percent of all starters.

“It’s going to hurt the bottom end here,” said trainer Howard Belvoir, a mainstay at Emerald who finished third in the trainer standings at Portland Meadows’ 2011-12 winter meeting.

Belvoir has done his part to prop up racing at Emerald, starting more horses over the past five years than any other trainer. He said he feels a loyalty to his fellow horsemen in Oregon. He is less charitable with his opinion of the Stronach Group, which assumed private ownership of Portland Meadows in June 2011 and moved quickly to challenge Emerald Downs’ hold on prime summer racing dates.

According to trainers in both states, officials from the Stronach Group gave horsemen no option but to accept a summer meeting or face the certain demise of racing at Portland Meadows.

“The Portland people have no choice – they’ve got to run,” Belvoir said. “I’d like to help them, but I’m not going to unless it’s an emergency. I like both places, but I can only support home. I don’t want any track to close, because we need them all. That’s the way the industry should look at it. If one can help the other, they should. But that won’t happen in this lifetime.”

Crockett said his relationship with Portland Meadows officials, particularly general manager Will Alempijevic, has been amicable. But the issues go far beyond friendships.

“Our relationship with Will has been just fine,” said Crockett. “He came up three or four months ago with their racing secretary [Jerry Kohls] and explained that the Stronach Group had given him the opportunity to run in the summertime. The relationship has been fine from that standpoint. But with the shortage of horses, across the country in general, it’s going to make it difficult for everyone.”

Eventually, many at Emerald Downs say, something will have to give. Crockett is hopeful that owners and trainers will follow the money. Attendance, handle, and purses are larger at Emerald Downs.

“All if can say is, I reviewed their last meet, and I believe the purses were 30-some thousand a day, and ours generally will be $87,000 a day, and people always say the purse money is the key,” Crockett said. “So if someone chooses to run for a lesser amount, what can we say?”

The competition begins Sunday. The future of one or both tracks could hang in the balance.

“I don’t know what to think,” said trainer Charles Essex, who runs horses at both venues. “It scares me to death.”

Belvoir sounded a more dire warning.

“If this doesn’t work for Frank Stronach – and I’m sure it’s not – he’s going to shut it down Dec. 9,” Belvoir said. “That would take another place out where people can go. We closed down Yakima and Spokane. It’s going to happen, no matter what. They’re just expediting it a little bit.”