04/16/2015 1:55PM

Meet kicks off with high hopes, higher purses


AUBURN, Wash. – Emerald Downs kicks off its 20th season Saturday with a 10-race card and high hopes for its first meeting under the ownership of the Muckleshoot Indian tribe.

The tribe, proprietor of the largest casino in Washington, added Emerald to its portfolio over the winter, quickly raised overnight purses by 20 percent, and installed Phil Ziegler, a veteran marketing director with an extensive background in racing and casino management, as track president.

The tribe had been Emerald Downs’s landlord since 2002, when it acquired the 157-acre property, and has contributed more than $11 million in Emerald Downs purse enhancements since 2004. Now, with the facility in hand, speculation abounds that the tribe will pursue federal trust land status for the property that would allow for casino-style gaming.

Ziegler, who served for nine years as the director of marketing for the Muckleshoot’s thriving casino on tribal property about five miles southeast of Emerald Downs, said the immediate focus is on getting the lay of the land, building the horse population, and expanding Emerald’s marketing efforts.

“We’ve only been here a little while,” Ziegler said. “We just got the license on March 13. We’re just getting acclimated to operating the track. The first season, it’s very impressive to watch all the people who’ve been here for years. The place looks great. Right now, we’re looking into how we can make Emerald Downs a destination year-round. We’re looking at the possibility of a card room. We’re at the beginning of analyzing that. Our goal, if people come out here a couple of times a year, is to get them to come out four or five times. There’s something happening here every weekend.”

Ziegler said he’s received nothing but positive feedback from horsemen. That’s what a hefty purse increase will do.

“We’re just trying to get more of a horse population here,” he said. “There are more incentives for horsemen this year. We’re trying to get the breeding industry stimulated. The horses are the star of the show. But the feedback has all been positive.”

Ziegler, who grew up in New York and was an avid horseplayer, said he’s in tune with bettors who want to see a better product. The only way to get there, he said, is with bigger fields.

“Last year, the average field size was 6.2 or 6.3. It’s not as much fun,” he said. “The most important thing for people is having a good time, and they like to see good, competitive racing. One thing we’ve done is we’re adding a 10-cent superfecta this year. A lot of people asked for that, the dime superfecta. But it’s been proven around the industry that the larger the field size, the more people bet.”