04/14/2009 11:00PM

Optimism remains, despite tough times

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AUBURN, Wash. - Cautious optimism is the prevailing mood as Emerald Downs opens its 2009 season Friday, the first of 91 racing dates in a meeting that runs through Sept. 27 and peaks Aug. 16 with the Grade 3, $300,000 Longacres Mile.

Purse money at the suburban Seattle track has been reduced by 4.7 percent from last year, a concession to the battered economy and shrinking betting handle. Emerald Downs president Ron Crockett said winter simulcast wagering at Emerald was off 7.2 percent from the previous year. He anticipates similar declines during the live meeting, at least until the economy shows signs of a turnaround. Average daily handle at Emerald in 2008 was $1,381,572.

An even larger concern, Crockett said, is a dwindling horse population and its potential impact on field size. Fewer than 1,100 horses were on the grounds last weekend (Emerald Downs can accommodate about 1,400), and 72 were entered for the eight races on opening night. Average field size in 2008 was 7.69 horses per race.

"You see so many five- and six-horse fields these days, it's unbelievable," Crockett said. "Eight or more [starters] is what you want to induce a fairly significant change in handle."

The highlight on opening night is a 5 1/2-furlong allowance race featuring Wasserman and The Great Face in a rare meeting of Longacres Mile winners. Wasserman, owned, bred, and trained by Howard Belvoir, captured the Mile and three other stakes races last summer - prevailing in a photo finish each time. The Great Face, owned by Crockett and trained by Tom Wenzel, won the 2007 Mile but missed all of 2008 after having bone chips removed from a front ankle.

The Great Face and Wasserman likely would meet next in the $30,000 Seattle Handicap on May 3, one of 35 scheduled stakes races, with purses totaling $2,015,000. The stakes menu is virtually unchanged from 2008, though horses bred in British Columbia now are eligible to compete in three stakes formerly restricted to Washington-breds.

The jockey colony has thinned, losing three of the top seven riders from 2008. Kevin Radke, who finished third in the standings with 100 wins, is on hiatus and living in Florida. Leslie Mawing, who finished sixth with 76 wins, suffered severe injuries April 1 in a spill at Golden Gate Fields. And Northwest riding legend Gary Baze, seventh with 34 wins last summer, is exercising horses in Northern California. That should reduce the race for the riding title to defending champion Seth Martinez (121 wins) and runner-up Ricky Frazier (117). The top newcomer figures to be apprentice Cassie Papineau, who has ridden 35 winners this winter at Turf Paradise.

The top 12 leading trainers from last season are back, but it could be another one-man show at the top of the standings. Tim McCanna set a track record with 66 winners in 2008, 20 more than runner-up Frank Lucarelli. The holdovers will be joined by Larry Ross, who will saddle horses previously trained by his wife, Sharon Ross. Larry Ross, who trained horses in Northern California and managed the couple's farm operations for the past few years, won the inaugural Emerald Downs training title in 1996.

The head-to-head wager has been removed from the betting menu. Emerald Downs offers exactas on every race, trifectas on most races, two pick fours, two daily doubles, and rolling pick threes - lots of options for a wagering public with fewer dollars to spend.

"We'll know fairly quickly if the meet is going to be a good one," Crockett said. "I'm always optimistic."