04/26/2013 4:55PM

Emerald Downs: Metz thriving in new locale

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AUBURN, Wash. – In the midst of a big winter at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Jeff Metz began scouting around for a place to spend his summer. The trainer had been to Arapahoe in previous summers and wasn’t interested in going back. Nor was he inclined to follow the herd to Canterbury to chase its pumped-up purses.

Metz settled on Emerald Downs, arriving in March with 25 horses in tow, and judging by his performance during the opening week of the meeting, he might be inclined to stick around for a while.

Metz, 46, won with four of his 13 starters during the three-day weekend, and three others finished second. Everything he sent out was “live” and particularly well placed – his winners paid $7.60, $5.20, $9.80, and $2.80 – and Metz was competitive with both bottom-level claimers and top-level allowance runners. E Z Kitty, making her first start for Metz, finished a close second Sunday in a prep for possible stakes engagements down the road.

So far, so good for Metz, who is fifth in the Turf Paradise standings with 46 wins and still has some horses in Phoenix. That meeting ends May 7, and then, if all goes to plan, Metz will head north for the balance of the summer, with occasional side trips to his permanent home in San Dimas, Calif.

“My thinking was, I was looking for a market to be a counterpoint to Phoenix, and hopefully six months here, six months there, or five and seven, that kind of thing,” Metz said this week. “I wanted to go somewhere where we can have some horses and be competitive. I brought 25 horses here. I wanted people to get to know me, get to know I’m here, and just like in Phoenix, I run . . . I don’t sit in the barn.”

Metz is the first new trainer with a significant string of horses at Emerald in at least five years, a welcome development for director of racing Bret Anderson and his assistant, Rene Harris. While Anderson said the horse population has increased by roughly 5 percent from the corresponding date a year ago, he’s had a devil of a time trying to fill races. The problem was acute this weekend, when the 17 races between Saturday and Sunday attracted a total of 100 horses, or 5.9 per race. Eight of those 100 are trained by Metz, including five who are doubling back after running last week.

“These horses that are running back, part of that was helping the racing secretary because the races weren’t filling,” Metz said. “Some of these I would normally give more rest, but Bret and Rene in the racing office have been great and I wanted to help them out. Obviously, they needed more horses here on the grounds.”

There may be more on the way, Metz said. Bodaway, the leading 3-year-old at Turf Paradise, is still in Arizona and may start next in California before coming to Emerald Downs. Why Not Be Perfect, who this week was named the top grass horse at Turf Paradise, is already on the Emerald backside and being readied for a campaign that could lead to a possible start in the Grade 3 Longacres Mile on Aug. 18.

“He did win a stake going a mile on the dirt at Turf Paradise, so he’s not exclusively turf,” Metz said of Why Not Be Perfect. “The thing is, he’s worked so good on the dirt at every track I’ve had him. Turf Paradise is a fast track, like here, and he’d work 58 easy. The other morning he went 59 and change here, so that tells me he probably likes the track. I’m hoping there will be some kind of prep race, because the Budweiser Handicap doesn’t come up until June.”

Metz liked what he saw of E Z Kitty last Sunday, when she finished a neck behind Exclusive Diva in a 5 1/2-furlong allowance sprint. E Z Kitty has six career stakes victories, including two at Emerald Downs under different ownership and with different trainers.

“I just nominated her to the Hastings Handicap on May 12,” Metz said Thursday. “I would assume we’d get a rematch with Exclusive Diva. We bought the filly at the end of Phoenix from Mike Chambers, and between shipping and not having a work over the track, we were using it as a prep race, and we learned a lot. I think the farther the better for her, and she’s more of a one-pace filly. She doesn’t necessarily quicken. She was probably a work short.”

Metz grew up in Northern California and has no Northwest ties to speak of, though he does have fond memories of a childhood visit to Longacres.

“My parents owned horses when I was growing up, and it was funny, I remember going to Longacres, and Kathy Walsh was training a horse for my dad at the time. I was maybe 5 years old and I was in the win picture, so that was neat. And then when I was 14, we spent the summer at Del Mar and it was like, ‘Oh, man, this is what I want to do.’ ”