04/15/2015 1:40PM

Purse increases lure new faces to Emerald meet

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AUBURN, Wash. – Positive vibes have been emanating from Emerald Downs in advance of the 2015 meeting, which begins Saturday. The track’s new owners, the Muckleshoot Tribe, got off to a popular start with horsemen when they increased overnight purses by 20 percent from 2014, and the initial response has been encouraging for all involved. The horse population has swelled, and some 15 to 20 new jockeys and trainers have set up shop for the summer. As if on cue, there’s even sunshine in the forecast for opening day.

The Muckleshoots acquired Emerald Downs early this year in a transaction with Emerald founder Ron Crockett and Northwest Racing Associates, which had operated the suburban Seattle facility since its inaugural season in 1996. Crockett is staying on as a consultant, and the rest of Emerald’s management team – including vice president Jack Hodge and director of racing Bret Anderson – has returned intact from a year ago. They will serve under new president Phil Ziegler, formerly in management at Zia Park.

The only dramatic change to the facility is the ongoing installation of a video screen above the tote board. The screen, measuring 31 feet by 49 feet, is scheduled for completion in June.

The impact of purse increases will be felt immediately. During Saturday’s 10-race card, $5,000 maiden claimers – the bottom level at Emerald Downs – will compete for a purse of $6,600, up from $5,500 last year; $10,000 claimers will vie for a purse of $12,300, up from $10,500; and $20,000 claimers will race for a $17,000 pot, up from $14,800. In the day’s featured race, a first-level allowance for 3-year-olds, the purse is $21,500.

There were 821 horses on the grounds as of Tuesday, Emerald officials said, with about 70 more on the way from Arizona when Turf Paradise closes May 5. Phoenix-based trainers Manny Ortiz and Mike Pierce each requested 20 Emerald stalls, and Mike Chambers, Emerald’s all-time leader in winning percentage (28.4), requested 10. Chambers is returning to Emerald for the first time since 2010.

The jockey colony promises to be as strong as any in the past six or seven years. Defending champion Leslie Mawing returns, along with veterans Juan Gutierrez, Rocco Bowen, Gallyn Mitchell, David Lopez, Javier Matias, Jose Zunino, and Jennifer Whitaker. Eliska Kubinova, who took the winter off and gave birth to her first child in February, will make her return in Saturday’s third race aboard the likely favorite, Blues Zensation.

They’ll be joined by a host of newcomers led by Jake Barton, Julien Couton, Joe Steiner, Francisco Duran, and Diego Sanchez. Couton, who won more than 100 races in California in 2012, has seven mounts on opening day.