04/16/2002 11:00PM

Horsemen adapt to life without straw

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AUBURN, Wash. - Emerald Downs horsemen are learning to live without straw.

Straw, the bedding material of choice for horsemen across the nation, was used exclusively at Emerald until this year, when the mushroom farm that used to take the soiled material went out of business. Track officials were unable to find an affordable alternative for disposing of the straw, so when the track opened for training on Feb. 1 horsemen were required to use peat moss for stall bedding. About three weeks ago, after growing tests were performed by a company that takes the material for resale as a soil enhancement, wood pellets also became permitted for use.

A survey of horsemen this week, along with a stroll through the shed rows and an inspection of the bunkers used to store soiled stall bedding material, revealed that roughly a third of the stalls are being bedded with peat moss, a third with wood pellets, which quickly decompose into sawdust when mixed with fluid, and a third with a mixture of the two materials.

"Everybody is still finding out about the advantages and disadvantages of each material and how to use them," trainer Steve Fisher said. "I think most people would probably go back to using straw if they could, but they are learning how to get along with the other materials."

Fisher uses peat moss, which he likes because of its cushioning properties.

"It's really good for the horses' feet," he said. "On the other hand, it tends to be damp and cold, at least in this weather, so the horses don't lie down on it as much. And its dust forms a film on the water buckets, so you have to change the water more often.

"I'll probably change over to the wood pellets or a mixture of peat and wood pellets eventually, but right now I'm just trying to learn from the experience of other trainers."

While most horsemen here would go back to using straw if given that option, it is by no means universally true. Trainer Bud Klokstad, for example, is sold on using a 50-50 mix of peat and wood pellets.

"I found that the peat by itself packed down too hard and the pellets by themselves were too dusty," he said. "But when you mix them together, you get a darned nice bed. I'd never go back to straw. It's dusty, and it contains so many insecticides and fertilizers - plus the horses eat it, and can't digest it. With either the peat or the pellets, you can control what your horses eat.

"The other thing is that I'm glad I don't have to throw away so much material every day. It's such a waste."

Klokstad said that his straw bill had been $5,500 a month for 30-plus stalls.

"I haven't worked out what it is costing me now, but I know it's not that much," he said.

The cost of using the various bedding materials depends on how they are used, so the cost is different for each horseman. Trainer Charles Barth, for example, has found that wood pellets are the most economical.

"It used to cost me $2.60 per stall per day to use straw," he said. "When I switched to peat it was costing me about $4 per stall per day. But when I went to the wood pellets the cost went down to about $2. That's just my experience, though. I'm sure other people are having different results. It all comes down to a matter of preference, and I like the wood pellets."

Stewardship to rotate

The Washington Horse Racing Commission, which last year began rotating its chairmanship on a yearly basis, has decided to rotate the presiding steward's position at Emerald Downs as well.

Tom Rainey, who has served as presiding steward at Washington's major track since arriving at Longacres in 1985, will step down this year in favor of Steve Hiatt, who has been a steward in the state for 18 years.

Doug Moore, the other steward at Emerald, will serve as presiding steward next season.

Winter sale moved to autumn

The Washington Thoroughbred Breeders Association will move this year's winter mixed sale, which has traditionally been held in early December, to Oct. 20. The change is being made in order to ensure milder weather during and preceding the auction, when consignors are preparing their horses for sale.

The WTBA's flagship summer yearling sale will be held as usual on the day after Labor Day, Sept. 3.