04/06/2010 11:00PM

An eventful start to Emerald meeting


AUBURN, Wash. - When Emerald Downs kicks off its new season Friday, some of the best fillies and mares on the grounds will knock heads in the feature race, track officials will give away 40 big-screen LCD televisions, and Zenyatta's attempt to run her record to 16-0 in the Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park will lend some sizzle to the simulcast menu.

It's a splashy beginning. The trick is to keep things interesting for the rest of the 89-day meeting. Track president Ron Crockett, who spearheaded the drive to build Emerald Downs as a replacement for Longacres in 1992, said he embraces the challenge.

"I'm a little concerned about the weather for opening night; the rain has been severe lately," Crockett said Tuesday afternoon. "Other than that, I'm looking out at the paddock, the horses are schooling, and we're ready to roll."

The season's first stakes, the $50,000 Hastings Handicap on May 2, is a likely target for most of the five horses entered in Friday's feature, a $20,000 allowance dash at 5 1/2 furlongs. No Flies On Doodle, a two-time stakes winner in 2009, is the probable favorite.

Friday's forecast calls for temperatures in the 40s and a 30 percent chance of rain, a far cry from opening night a year ago, when more than 10,000 turned out on a balmy evening, but an upgrade from the 2008 opener, when it snowed.

"I always begin positive, and this year is no different than the last one," Crockett said. "While our handle was down last year, [the decline] wasn't as drastic as some."

Wagering, attendance, and purses all dipped - overall wagering was off 6.9 percent - but all-source betting on Emerald's races increased 1.8 percent to an average of $884,628 per day. Crockett is banking on Emerald's ability to sustain those 2009 levels; while four stakes races have been lopped from the schedule, the overnight purse structure is the same as it was when the 2009 meeting began.

"In light of how the industry was doing, I was pleased with last year's meet," Crockett said. "If we could duplicate that, I'd be extremely pleased."

Emerald will operate Friday through Sunday for eight weeks before adding Thursday cards in June. As usual, the Grade 3, $250,000 Longacres Mile will be the showcase event. Scheduled for Aug. 22, it's one of 31 stakes worth $1,760,000 to be contested before the meeting ends Sept. 26.