01/10/2015 9:13AM

Emerald incentive program aimed at reducing trainer costs


AUBURN, Wash. - Emerald Downs on Friday announced the creation of an incentive program designed to attract stables to the Seattle-area track. The five-point program includes increased participation fees, and concessions that will lower trainer overhead.

The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe agreed in November to buy Emerald Downs. In December, the tribe announced a 20 percent purse increase for the 2015 meet, which begins in April.

The incentive program features bonuses for trainers who move their horses into the track early; reduced start-up costs, including eight free bags of bedding per stall; and discounts on dorm rentals and mechanical hot-walkers. Every unplaced starter will receive a $200 participation fee, up from $125 a year ago.

In addition, according to Emerald media relations director Vince Bruun, trainers “will have the opportunity to recover up to 100 percent of per-stall, per-day costs based on a stall-efficiency factor and conservation of utilities.”

Friday’s news, on the heels of the purse-increase announcement, was seen as a huge win for Washington horsemen.

“After many years of increased expenses for trainers and owners, we’re grateful to be involved in creating positive incentives that deliver good economic news to horsemen,” MaryAnn O’Connell, executive director of the Washington Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said in a release. “A program that translates cost savings and productive participation directly into bonus dollars for horsemen is empowering, as it fosters and rewards a team effort for success of the new ownership.”

The Muckleshoots, who operate Washington’s largest casino, about five miles from Emerald Downs, face an uphill climb to turn around their newest property. Betting handle and average field size at Emerald Downs have declined sharply over the past decade.

The number of starters has dipped 44 percent since 2005, when Emerald’s 925 races lured 7,236 starters, an average of 7.82 per race. Last year, the numbers were 641 races, 4,022 starters and 6.27 horses per race.

Wagering in 2014 on Emerald races averaged about $732,000 per day, according to Ron Crockett, former president of Emerald Downs, and betting on Emerald races by on-site patrons was $160,344, a 2 percent decrease despite what Crockett said was an estimated 6.7 percent spike in attendance.

Naturally, with larger purses as the engine, Emerald Downs officials are banking on larger fields – and more betting - when the 70-day meeting opens. Backstretch gates swing open Jan. 31 and training begins Feb. 2.

“I think it’s great, obviously,” trainer Frank Lucarelli said Friday. “Everyone needs some sort of boost in the arm; we’ve been in this sort of flat-line. I don’t know if we’re going to get a lot of new people up here - it’s not cheap for people to move and run two or three days a week in a 70-day meet. But we’re on the right track. What is happening is huge.”

Lucarelli is one of several Seattle-area trainers who shuttle between Emerald Downs and tracks in California and Arizona. The new financial incentives will give them a reason to think twice before shipping out.

“It will ensure that more of our owners want to come back home,” Lucarelli said. “A lot of people are on the fence with horses in the [San Francisco] Bay Area. Now they can run at home for about as much money. So now it doesn’t make sense to be down there paying $10 more a day in day money and all that. I’m excited, and my owners are excited. Let’s face it, the Muckleshoots could have done a lot less going into this first year. They could have done nothing. The things they have done are a huge positive for us.”