04/12/2011 3:23PM

Emerald Downs opening with trimmed schedule

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AUBURN, Wash. – Emerald Downs, the Pacific Northwest’s flagship track, springs back to life Friday evening, launching an 82-day meeting that will span six months and reach its apex with the 76th running of the Grade 3 Longacres Mile on Aug. 21.

Emerald will conduct racing three days a week – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – for the first 12 weeks of the meeting, add Thursday cards in July and August, and then down-shift to three days a week in September. The season ends Sept. 25.

After presenting a 90-day meeting in 2010, Emerald Downs officials trimmed eight days from the 2011 calendar, a nod to the region’s declining horse population and a further attempt to find the fiscal sweet spot for the track, its horsemen, and, perhaps most important, its bettors. Wagering on Emerald races declined 9.1 percent last year, according to the track’s president, Ron Crockett, as the average field size dipped to 7.03 horses per race, off 5.4 percent from 2009.

“That’s my biggest concern, is field sizes,” Crockett said. “We did reduce the number of days and hopefully that will help. I think we’ll begin the meet down about 100 horses from last year.”

Emerald Downs staged a Quarter Horse race last September, a test run that was well-received by fans. The track upgraded its timing system this winter to meet American Quarter Horse Association requirements, and, in an effort to compensate for the shortfall in ready-to-race Thoroughbreds, will offer about three Quarter Horse races per week in 2011. The first one, a 350-yard dash for $5,000 claimers, is scheduled for April 29.

As the meeting begins, purses for overnight races, enhanced by contributions from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, will be virtually unchanged from 2010. But to maintain those levels, Emerald Downs trimmed stakes purses by 14 percent. The Longacres Mile, the track’s marquee event and the Northwest’s only graded race, will offer a $200,000 purse, down $50,000 from a year ago. All told, Emerald has scheduled 29 stakes worth a combined $1,515,000 in purses.

With rain in the forecast for Wednesday and Thursday, and a 30 percent chance of showers Friday, the track could be wet for the opener, though that shouldn’t dampen what generally is a festive evening at Emerald Downs. Those in attendance will have an opportunity to win one of 50 flat-screen televisions to be given away over the course of the card. First post time is 6 p.m.