05/06/2010 12:00AM

It all begins with a full entry box


AUBURN, Wash. - Lingering concerns about a horse shortage at Emerald Downs were momentarily put to rest Wednesday when horsemen submitted entries for the weekend. Saturday's nine-race card filled with 76 horses, an average of 8.44 per race, and Sunday's 10-race program attracted 83, or 8.3 per race. Average field size at Emerald in 2009 was 7.43 horses per race.

More positive indicators for the 89-day meeting, which began April 9: The stakes program began last Sunday, and 2-year-old racing is expected to begin later this month, further bolstering the number of horses in competition.

But horse population remains a vexing issue for the Northwest's largest track. Fewer horses has meant fewer races through the first month of the meeting, leading to a 10.8 percent decrease in betting handle from the corresponding period in 2009.

A total of 98 races have been run at the current meeting, an average of 8.17 races per day with an average field size of 6.65 horses. Last year at the corresponding date, the numbers were 9.11 races per day with an average field size of 7.55.

A year ago, Emerald averaged $1,484,153 in betting handle through the first nine racing dates, the track's president, Ron Crockett, said. This year, through 12 dates, the average is $1,323,712, a decline of more than $160,000 per day.

"Most of that is a function of the fact we've run fewer races," Crockett said. "The numbers might be level if we had the same number of races and the same number of horses as last year."

The uptick in entries for Sunday is partly by design, Crockett said. Sunday cards at Emerald generally attract the largest crowds and the most wagering interest, both locally and from out of state. The cards are structured to maximize the betting. On Sunday, April 25, Emerald handle exceeded $1.5 million, the season's first increase from a corresponding date in 2009.

"Sundays have been very good," Crockett said. "Historically, in the state of Washington, they're always good. It's been this way for us for more than 30 years."

But horses are the industry's lifeblood, and right now, there aren't enough of them.

"That's the major concern in this industry," Crockett said. "Is it the number of tracks, number of days? We're fortunate to be fairly isolated up here, but that's the problem, horse population, and none of us know how to master this industry right now."