05/14/2002 12:00AM

Shortage of juveniles behind shrinking cards

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AUBURN, Wash. - The paucity of entries through the first 15 days of racing at the current Emerald Downs meeting has resulted not only in a low average field size - just 7.2 horses per race - but also in the small number of races per card.

Grant Holcomb, the track's director of racing, has been able to offer only four 10-race programs, and only three nine-race cards. There have been seven eight-race programs, and on one occasion Holcomb was forced to go with only seven races, the fewest ever here.

For the low average of only 8.6 races per card, there is a ready explanation: The races for 2-year-olds have simply not been filling. Through Sunday, only a pair of 2-year-old races had been run at the meeting.

At the same point in last year's stand, 11 races for juveniles were in the books. Had the nine missing 2-year-old races been run, the current average program size would stand at a more or less normal 9.3 races per card.

Holcomb was able to offer one solid reason why the races for juveniles haven't filled well this year. He said the number of 2-year-olds approved to race here this year is approximately 350, down about 120 from last year. He also speculated about a couple of other possible reasons.

"I think part of it has to do with economics," he said. "A lot of trainers used to spend 30 days at training centers before we opened for training on the first of February, but they aren't willing or able to do that anymore. That puts them back about a month.

"The other thing is that Portland Meadows closed two months early this year. A lot of 2-year-olds usually train at Portland for our meet, and some of them would run a time or two down there. Those horses were crucial for filling our early 2-year-old races."

Most of the trainers surveyed blamed the area's unusually wet and cold spring for not having their 2-year-olds ready to race, and a few cited increased numbers of young horses affected by the common springtime virus that horsemen inelegantly call "the snots."

"I have 15 2-year-olds here, and just about all of them have been sick at one time or another," said trainer Frank Lucarelli.

"I just back off on them when they start coughing, so I'm behind schedule with most of them," he said. I've only had two or three of them approved from the gate so far."

Lucarelli's experience probably isn't typical, according to Dr. Tom Brandli, who is one of the busiest veterinarians on the grounds.

"My impression is that the virus is about the same as it usually is at this time of year, and if anything it might be less severe than usual," he said.

One positive sign is that many, if not most of the 2-year-olds on the grounds have been approved from the gate, which is one of several requirements horses must meet before they can race at Emerald.

"I've been approving 10 or 12 horses every day for the past several weeks," said starter Mark Gibson. "I know I've okayed at least as many 2-year-olds as last year, so that can't be the reason they aren't entering."

Whatever the reason - and it seems clear there is no single reason - Holcomb is confident that the current situation will soon pass.

"When it happens, it will happen all at once," he predicted. "Most trainers are three or four weeks behind, but every week there are more 2-year-olds entered than the week before, and before long all of those races will be filling."

For fans who are eager for more opportunities to play live races, that time can't come too soon.

Several parties interested in Playfair

There is renewed interest in returning Thoroughbred racing to Spokane's Playfair Race Course, according to Pat LePley, chairman of the Washington Horse Racing Commission.

"I can tell you that there are at least three real solid groups interested in getting Playfair operating as a race track again," said LePley.

"The difference between now and the past is that these groups are financially solvent.

"We are currently in the process of doing general background checks on the interested parties so that we can move quickly if something is signed. My impression is that there could be an announcement soon."

Only one of the interested parties has made himself known to the public.

Eric Nelson, who owns four card rooms in Washington and operates Wyoming Downs, told the commission of his interest at a meeting last month. Nelson confirmed last week that he is still interested in Playfair, which sits on 66 1/2 acres owned by Jack Pring's Appleway Leasing Corp.

Playfair has not conducted racing since December 2000, when Lilac City Racing Association ceased operation, citing heavy financial losses.