04/10/2012 2:24PM

Emerald Downs: Familiar faces in strong jockey colony


AUBURN, Wash. – It will be business as usual when Emerald Downs ushers in its new season Friday with an eight-race program. All of the familiar names from the 2011 jockey standings have returned. The wagering menu is unchanged, and most of the marquee stakes horses are back in their respective barns. Noosa Beach is among them; the two-time defending horse of the meeting worked four furlongs Saturday morning in preparation for his first start of the year.

The 81-day meeting will include three-day racing weeks through the middle of July, with Friday twilight cards beginning at 6 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday matinees starting at 2. The first Thursday card of the meet will take place July 19, with racing four days a week for the ensuing six weeks. The schedule reverts to three days in September, and the meet ends Sept. 23.

Leslie Mawing, who ran away with the riding title last summer, returns after a strong winter at Golden Gate, where he was fifth in the jockey standings through Sunday. Also coming north from the Bay Area is William Antongeorgi III, a six-year veteran with 424 career victories and designs on the riding title.

Old reliables Juan Gutierrez and Gallyn Mitchell, each of whom has finished in the top five in the Emerald standings in each of the past 10 seasons, help make it one of the most competitive jockey rosters in years.

Veteran Javier Matias, his career revitalized this winter when he rode 70 winners in 55 days at Portland Meadows, and 23-year-old Eliska Kubinova, a burgeoning star who was second to Matias in the Portland standings, have moved their base to Emerald. Kubinova came to the United States last year from her native Czech Republic and rode a handful of winners at Emerald before catching fire in Portland. She rode six winners there March 7 on the heels of a five-win day the week before.

Emerald Downs trainers will have all kinds of other options, too, with Jose Zunino, Joe Crispin, Deborah Hoonan, Pedro Terrero, Jennifer Whitaker, and Leonel Camacho-Flores among the recognizable names.

Still missing from the list is Ricky Frazier, a five-time Emerald riding champion who has been sidelined since October 2010 because of head injuries suffered in a riding mishap at the Fresno, Calif., fair meeting. Frazier had hoped to return this spring, but doctors have yet to clear him.

Even without Frazier angling for mounts, these riders will have to hustle. In 2011, Emerald’s average field size was 6.73 starters per race, a record low. That means getting races to fill could be a challenge for Emerald Downs director of racing Bret Anderson. Anderson said Monday there were 809 horses on the grounds, down 6 percent from the corresponding date a year ago. With so few horses, and so many talented riders, competition promises to be fierce.