Horse Racing is Back at Emerald Downs — With a Coronavirus-Shortened Season, No Fans


“Runners away.”

That’s how Emerald Downs track announcer Tom Harris starts each race he calls. He and the horses will be back in action for Wednesday’s opening day at the Auburn racetrack, more than two months after it was scheduled to open.

Eighty-one horses are set to compete in nine races, but there won’t be fans. Large gatherings are not yet allowed under Washington guidelines for reopening from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve never had an opening day quite like this,” said Emerald Downs President Phil Ziegler. “But it will be special in its own way as this will be the first professional sporting event to return to the state of Washington since everything shut down. So in that regard, it’s pretty exciting.”

The original 63-day race meet revolved around weekend racing, but that was with the expectation that fans could attend. Now, Emerald Downs will race Wednesdays and Thursdays – light days for racing across the country – at least through July in an effort to increase nationwide online and simulcast wagering.

“We never intended to run on the weekends if we couldn’t have a crowd here,” Ziegler said. “We just had to wait and see what availability there was in the (national) racing schedule to see what the best times for us to run to be on TVG (network) and get betting from around the state and the country.”

The season has been reduced to 44 days, with the final racing day scheduled for Oct. 18. The track has tentatively planned a Friday-Sunday racing schedule starting in August, but that will only happen if fans can return.

“It all depends on the virus and things getting better,” Ziegler said. “Nobody can predict that we can have fans here before the end of the season.”

Trainer Frank Lucarelli, who set the Emerald Downs record last season with 81 winners en route to his sixth training title, has gotten used to his horses competing without fans. The Northwest native moves to Northern California to manage a stable there when Emerald Downs is off.

“It’s different,” said Lucarelli, who has been racing horses at fan-less Golden Gate Fields outside San Francisco. “We walk over with the horses and we watch them run, and it’s the trainer and the groom, and that’s it. … The announcer is announcing the race (for the simulcast audience) and no one is there.

“It’s like any sport, the more people there are, the more excitement there is and the funner it is. It’s fun when the fans are there, especially up here (in Auburn). Emerald brings in a great group of fans. I’m from here and I know a lot of people, and it’s a social event in addition to trying to win races. A lot of tracks, I won’t even come out to the races if I don’t have a horse running, but I do here because it’s fun and I like coming out.”

Lucarelli said he thought moving races to Wednesday and Thursday “was a good move on their part. I think they’ve been real smart in seeing which direction they would go and what the best simulcast days are.”

The Grade III, $100,000 Longacres Mile has been tentatively set for Sunday, Sept. 13. The purse for the race has been halved this season, and purses overall have been decreased because of lost revenue while the racetrack has been closed for live racing and for simulcast wagering at other racetracks.

“We want to get back to normal next year so we anticipate this thing to be a one-year adjustment,” Ziegler said. “Hopefully, next year we can have a normal offseason and get purses back to a normal level.”

In the meantime, Lucarelli said he is just glad there is a season in Auburn.

“This is home,” said Lucarelli, who grew up in Bellevue and now lives part-time in Enumclaw. “I always tell people if they ran a 130-day meet here and if they ran eight months a year, I wouldn’t go anywhere.”

Lucarelli said having a season was even more crucial for trainers who don’t have stables elsewhere.

“I think it’s really important because our industry, there is no secret that it has been struggling a little bit,” he said. “There are a few of us guys with stables in California, and we can get by and make a living. But a lot of these people, they stay home, they train here and it’s their livelihood and it would wipe out a lot of horsemen and our industry (if there wasn’t a season this year). If you go a year without, people get away and you’re going to lose a pretty good percentage of people who will never come back. So I think it was really important to run some kind of meet this season.”