04/06/2017 2:26PM

Emerald Downs meet opens amid high hopes

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Reed & Erin Palmer Photography/Emerald Downs
Emerald Downs will host 30 stakes races during its 70-day meet.

AUBURN, Wash. – The 70-day Emerald Downs meet begins Saturday night, and track president Phil Ziegler is hoping to keep the momentum going from last year, when the daily all-sources handle was up by almost 17 percent from 2015.

“Actually, over the last two years combined, we were up a third,” said Ziegler. “Last year, the increase had a lot to do with a big increase in the average field size.”

In 2016, the average field size was 7.43, up from 6.86 in 2015.

Ziegler is looking at starting the season with a bang Saturday, when first post will be 5 p.m. Pacific.

“This will be the first time we’ve opened on a Saturday evening, so we are going to try and make it special by having a fireworks show after the races,” said Ziegler. “We have some kind of promotion scheduled for every racing day. It’s all about having fun. We want to have things for people to do between races to make it a great family experience.”

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Last year, the biggest crowd at Emerald in five years showed up for the traditional fireworks display July 3.

One of the big changes at Emerald this year is the renovated fifth floor, featuring a new simulcast center and a new casino with 15 card tables.

“The casino is open 365 days and stays open until 2 a.m.,” said Ziegler. “The simulcast center used to close at 8:30. Now, we’re going to take Australia, Hong Kong, Los Alamitos, etc. Whatever is running, we’ll have it.”

The first stakes race of the meet is the $50,000 Seattle Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on May 7. The Grade 3, $200,000 Longacres Mile on Aug. 13 headlines the 30-race stakes schedule. For the first time, a $50,000 bonus is being offered to the winner of the Mile and Grade 3, $100,000 Premiers at Hastings on Oct. 9.

“We want to continue to build the Northwest connection in racing,” said Ziegler. “There is a total of $125,000 in bonuses available between the two tracks.”

Other races carrying $25,000 bonuses include the $75,000 Emerald Downs Derby on July 30; the Grade 3, $150,000 British Columbia Derby on Sept. 9; the $75,000 Washington Oaks on July 23; and the $100,000 British Columbia Oaks on Sept. 9.

The winner of the $65,000 Gottstein Futurity on Sept. 17, closing day, could earn a bonus by winning either the $100,000 Fantasy for fillies on Sept. 30 or the $100,000 Ascot for colts and geldings Oct. 1. Last year, the 2-year-old filly Blazinbeauty beat the boys in the Gottstein.

Washington Cup Day is scheduled for Aug. 27. The Muckleshoot Classic for 3-year-olds and up headlines that day’s six stakes restricted to Washington-breds.

Emerald races Saturdays and Sundays for the first two weeks of the meet and Fridays through Sundays for the rest of the meet, with holiday Mondays thrown in May 29 and July 3. First post is 6:30 p.m. on Fridays and 2 p.m. most Saturdays. Emerald is scheduled to race Saturday evenings for most of July.

Last year, Emerald opened with a nine-race card that attracted 63 horses. Due to a brutal winter with record rain and snow, racing secretary Brett Anderson was only able to come up with 55 horses entered in seven races for Saturday.

“It was tough, but we made it,” said Anderson. “The weather really hurt. It can only get better.”

The featured race is a $15,000 conditional claimer for 3-year-olds and up. Oh Marvelous Me, trained by Blaine Wright, looks like the one to beat in the 5 1/2-furlong dash, which drew seven horses.