04/07/2010 11:00PM

Reinforcements on the way to Emerald

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AUBURN, Wash. - With several trainers slow to arrive at Emerald Downs for the start of the 2010 season, the meeting's first Saturday card ran headlong into a horse shortage when entries were taken Wednesday. Track officials settled for a seven-race program, with an average field size of 6.6 horses per race. First post is 2 p.m.

All told, 159 horses were entered to run in the meeting's first three days, an average of 6.91 horses per race. Average field size at Emerald Downs in 2009 was 7.43. Track president Ron Crockett has said eight or more would be ideal.

"Eight starters is the magic number for people who bet the exotics," Crockett said when the 2009 season ended last September. "It's no nirvana by any means, but you strive for that, and that's what we need to get to."

The horse population figures to swell when trainers Mike Chambers, Neil Knapp, Valorie Lund, and Joe Toye arrive with full contingents from Turf Paradise. Those four combined to start 371 horses at Emerald Downs last summer. But another Phoenix-based trainer, Pete Axmaker, is skipping the 2010 Emerald meeting after sending out 84 starters a year ago.

While short in numbers, Saturday's card is long on quality. The first race, a maiden special weight for 3-year-olds, includes two first-time starters purchased at Keeneland - the promising colt Big Daddy's Vision, who finished second in his only start at 2, and Berry Ledo, second behind Santa Anita Derby fifth-place finisher Skipshot in his racing debut at Golden Gate on Jan. 31.

The fourth race, a $17,500 optional claimer, attracted Ex Mountain Cop, a seven-time stakes winner at Portland Meadows. And the sixth race, a $25,000 optional claimer for nonwinners of two races, lured talented 4-year-old sprinters Roy's Tops and Enumerator and recent Turf Paradise allowance winner Destiny's Roar.

* Also Saturday, the track will debut "Emerald Downs Live" - four hours of live race coverage, analysis, and features on Comcast SportsNet Northwest (Comcast Channel 179 in the Puget Sound region). Hosted by Emerald Downs publicity director Joe Withee, the show will air each Saturday at 2 p.m. throughout the 25-week season.

Emerald Downs has partnered with Comcast since 2006 to provide race replays free to digital subscribers via Comcast's On Demand platform. Crockett said replay viewership tripled in 2009.

"Based on the response to our On Demand coverage, we know there is an appetite in this market for racing broadcasts," Emerald director of marketing Adrian Buchan said.