04/30/2002 12:00AM

Purses hiked by 7 percent at Emerald

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AUBURN, Wash. - Emerald Downs will raise purses an average of 7 percent, retroactive to the beginning of the meeting, track president Ron Crockett said Tuesday. The reason for the increase is an upsurge in business, Crockett said.

Crockett noted that the increase restores Emerald's purses to the level of before May 30, 2001, when the purses were cut by about 7 percent.

Total wagering is up 21 percent from last year, to an average of $1,158,413 per day, through the first seven days of the meeting.

Though in-state wagering on live racing, which contributes the biggest percentage of the wagering dollar to purses, is actually down more than 14 percent, that decrease has been more than offset by increases in out-of-state wagering on local races and in-state wagering on full-card simulcasts. The number of full-card simulcasts offered by Emerald increased from one per day to five or six per day due to legislation passed last year.

"It may seem early to increase purses, but I don't think we're jumping the gun," said Crockett. "Total wagering was up 16 percent after the first week of the meeting, and it is now up 21 percent despite poor weather and competition from both the [Major League Baseball] Mariners and the [National Basketball Association] Sonics. I think the trend is very encouraging."

New, improved Salt Grinder

Salt Grinder, who set a track record when he defeated allowance company in 1:01.40 for 5 1/2 furlongs on April 20, heads a list of 12 3-year-olds nominated for Saturday's $35,000 Auburn Stakes at six furlongs.

Salt Grinder, a son of Salt Lake and Hairless Heiress, by Baldski, was purchased for $47,000 at the 2000 Washington Thoroughbred Breeders' Association summer yearling sale by Homestretch Farm, nom de course for trainer Jim Penney and several family members. He won his only start last summer against maiden special weight company, then was gelded during the off-season.

"I'm sure some people will question our decision to geld him, but we did it knowing he could run," said Penney. "We make our living racing horses, and we felt he would be a better racehorse if we gelded him."

Though Salt Grinder won both his starts after battling for the lead, Penney said he would not be surprised to see him come from off the pace in his stakes debut.

"He is actually a very manageable horse," said the trainer. "He isn't speed crazy at all. For example, he beat Bold Ranger by a length and a half the other day, and it was five lengths back to the third horse. If Bold Ranger hadn't been in the race, I think he probably still would have won by a length and a half. He just would have run a second slower. He only does what you want him to do.

"It is that quality about him that makes me hopeful that he'll be able to relax and run farther, and maybe gelding him helped him develop that quality."

Baze wakes up at right time

Gary Baze, who has won more races in Washington than any other jockey, got off to an uncharacteristically slow start at the meet. Baze entered Sunday's racing with just one win from his first 29 mounts. When the stakes money was on the line in Sunday's $35,000 Seattle Handicap, however, Baze was at his best.

Baze took Crowning Meeting, the longest shot on the board at 9-1, far off the pace as favored Handy N Bold and Sabertooth dueled through an hellacious half-mile in 43.80 seconds. Crowning Meeting unleashed a furious stretch run that brought him to the wire in a track-record-equaling 1:07.80, 1 3/4 lengths ahead of runner-up Road Afleet.

"Gary fits this horse really well," said Sharon Ross, who trains Crowning Meeting for owners George and Norma Sedlock. "They both have a lot of class."

Baze celebrated his 112th stakes win at Emerald and Longacres by returning to win Sunday's nightcap aboard Mukilteo Smoke.

* Vic Nelson, a resident of Las Vegas who operates Wyoming Downs and owns four card rooms in Washington, has notified the Washington Horse Racing Commission of his interest in resurrecting racing at Spokane's Playfair race course, which has been dark for the past two years. Nelson said he intends to meet soon with the track's owner, Jack Pring.

* Joe LaDuca, the editor of Washington Thoroughbred for the past 27 years, left the magazine at the end of last week.