04/11/2012 3:43PM

Emerald Downs opens meeting on Friday

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AUBURN, Wash. – Emerald Downs begins its 17th season Friday evening with an eight-race card that begins at 6 p.m. The timing is not ideal – the suburban Seattle track is going head-to-head with the Mariners, who will play their home opener Friday night at Safeco Field. But with warm weather, cold beer, fast horses, and a big-screen TV giveaway on Emerald’s menu, those who flock to the track are apt to find the races more entertaining than any ball game.

Friday’s feature is claiming sprint for older horses, a fallback option after a top-level allowance for fillies and mares failed to fill. Emerald’s horse population is down slightly from the corresponding date a year ago, but with more than 800 horses on the grounds, director of racing Bret Anderson cobbled together a card that attracted 7.75 runners per race. He got some needed help from trainer Howard Belvoir, who has at least one horse in every race but the third.

Belvoir should be a factor again in the race for the training title. He set the pace for most of last summer before Frank Lucarelli edged ahead in the final week of the meet. Belvoir has won more than 550 races in 16 years at Emerald Downs but has yet to capture a training crown. Lucarelli has won four, and Tim McCanna, inducted into the Washington Racing Hall of Fame last year, has 10.

Those three figure to duke it out with Jim Penney, Chris Stenslie, Doris Harwood, and Tom Wenzel for the top rungs in the trainer standings. They’ll also compete for $1.585 million in stakes purses, with 30 stakes spread over an 81-day meeting that ends Sept. 23. As always, the Grade 3, $200,000 Longacres Mile on Aug. 19 is the granddaddy of Northwest stakes races.

In the handicap division, the conversation the past two years has been dominated by one horse: Noosa Beach, who is entering his 6-year-old season and already holds the Emerald Downs record for career stakes victories with 11. But the division promises to be much deeper this year, with burgeoning stars Jebrica and Couldabenthewhisky joining the likes of Hollywood Harbor, Posse Power, and Winning Machine as viable challengers to Noosa Beach, the two-time horse of the meeting.

In addition to those runners, the division could get a lift from Gallant Son, the champion 2-year-old at Emerald in 2008 and a subsequent stakes winner on the grass in Southern California. Gallant Son has been working steadily at Golden Gate in preparation for his first start since August.

And don’t rule out a return to the Northwest by Atta Boy Roy, the brilliantly fast sprinter who shares the six-furlong track record (1:07) with Noosa Beach. Owner Roy Schaefer said Atta Boy Roy would begin the summer at Canterbury, with an eye toward a possible start in the Longacres Mile if Atta Boy Roy proves sound after some recent setbacks. The first stakes event for older runners is the $50,000 Governor’s Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs on May 20.