WHEN YOUR tray arrives in front of her at the Quarter Chute Café’s cash register, Sally Steiner is likely to ask you two questions:
Did you remember to pick up your silverware?
Would you like some homemade marionberry jam for your toast?
She also invites questions. If you’re a newcomer to Emerald Downs and Thoroughbred racing, you may ask why the people at tables are poring over newspapers and other sheets of paper. Or, why the pool tables, stuffed animals and Legos? Or, what’s all the talk about the Longacres Mile?
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Steiner will tell you that the Quarter Chute is the “family room” for the backstretch at the horse track in Auburn and that she considers herself the den mother.
“People come here expecting to just find gamblers and cigar smokers,” she says, “but that’s not who we are.”
“We” are the jockeys, trainers, grooms, farriers, veterinarians and all others who make horse racing happen. Plus those people hoping they can pick winners by sorting through tip sheets and the Daily Racing Form, the newspaper dedicated to horse racing.
This family room, open to the public, is a great place to start the day at Emerald Downs, watching the horses as they go from the barns to the track for training from 6:30 to 11:30 every morning except Tuesdays.
Steiner and Joe, her husband of 51 years, have run the Quarter Chute since the track opened in 1996. They ran the Backstretch Café at Longacres Park for the eight years before the Renton track closed in 1992.
At the Quarter Chute, Sally can tell you about any of the trophies, signs, paintings and newspaper clippings that line the walls and fill the display cases in this cafe cum museum.
The Longacres Mile? That’s the premier race in the region, since 1935, and running this year on Aug. 24.
Sally provides the Legos and stuffed animals for visiting children. She also proudly points out that Spanish Mass is said on Sunday, and that there’s day care, a dental office, clothing bank and rec center for her “family” caring for the horses.
Oh yes, the horses.
Grab a seat and watch as they pass by. Muscled, sleek creatures that stir a deep connection with the puny humans riding or watching them.
A good place to explore that connection is just inside the main gates at the Gift Horse, where one shop wall is lined with paintings of horses — all from artists trying to fathom the fascination horses elicit.
“They’re magical,” says Verdayle Forget, an artist living on Camano Island. “We never really understand them.”
Forget says watching horses at the track helped her focus on the muscle action of their bodies and their pure determination.
For Erica Nordean, an artist raised in Normandy Park, horses provide “so much to work with — lovely big shapes and planes, angles, animation and elegance.”
“They are superb athletes who give everything and have even more heart than they have physical strength,” says Nordean, who worked as an exercise rider at both Longacres and Emerald Downs. “They love to run.”
That is why humans race them and why the track itself pulls you past the betting windows and food stands and through the outdoor seating to stand along the rail.
“I bet any horse’s name that has anything to do with money,” says Tasha Doerschel, who is beside the track at the finish line. “So I bet Vegas Burn and Showmethemoneyjim. Vegas is all about money, you know,” explaining her exacta bet (picking the winner and second-place finisher in order).
If you hold a bet ticket as your horse comes down the stretch in the lead, two things are likely to happen: You’ll scream your head off and jump up and down.
That’s what Doerschel was doing as Vegas Burn and Showmethemoneyjim finished first and second and returned $8.50 on her $2 investment.
“I just go with my gut,” she says.
She doesn’t handicap the races?
“I don’t even know what that means.”
John Lindley does. He’s the handicapper for Parker’s tip sheet. Which means he studies the past performances of horses racing at Emerald Downs and makes recommendations on which ones to bet. It will cost you three bucks at the track to get his picks.
Lindley says your day at the races should begin the night before. You can find a Daily Racing Form at many convenience stores and at www.drf.com. At Lindley’s site, www.parkerspicks.com, you’ll find a lot of information about the horses, trainers and jocks to help you decide where to put your money.
If you buy a program, which is an abbreviated version of the form, you’ll get the basics. Between races, the public address system and TV monitors broadcast commentary from experts, including Lindley who often appears with Victor (“The Predictor”) Cozzetti, who’s been handicapping races around here for more than 40 years.
Lindley also advises the uninitiated to visit Newcomers’ Corner. That’s where Joe Laduca is leaning across a tabletop layout of the track as he explains to Karol Jones of Bothell the proper way to place a bet.
“First, say the name of the track, then the number of the race, the amount you want to bet, the type of bet and last, the number of the horse in the program.”
Jones, who says she mostly relies on what she calls “my Irish magic” to guide her bets, was hosting family the next week at Emerald Downs and wanted to “have a clue in case they ask questions.”
Laduca advises her to head over to the paddock to get a closer look at the horses in the next race.
What’s the most frequently asked question he gets?
“Where’s the ATM?”
AT THE PADDOCK, just north of the grandstand, you’ll have about 20 minutes, as the horses are saddled, to decide which ones look like winners. Then the jockeys mount up.
That’s when you can fully appreciate this two-athlete sport: a horse that averages 1,000 pounds and can hit speeds of 40 mph controlled by a jockey who averages 112 pounds and is 5 feet 4 inches tall.
Anne Sanguinetti is below those averages at 104 pounds and 5 feet 2. But she started the 2014 Emerald Downs meet with more than $4 million in earnings, which means the horses she has ridden (almost 4,000 of them) in her nine-year career have collected that much in purses, paid out to horses finishing “in the money,” usually first, second or third.
She followed trainer Jeffrey Metz to Emerald Downs from Arizona when he brought horses here in 2013. He won the training title that year, and Sanguinetti won 43 races.
She describes jockey life as a traveling circus, and says she spends lots of time flying between tracks and Alameda, Calif., her home.
“This is a hard business to plan in,” she says, mostly because of the possibility of injury.
Her pelvis was broken in six places in 2009 when a horse flipped in the starting gate and landed on top of her. She fractured a vertebrae in 2013 when Slammin’ Kitty, a 3-year-old filly, broke down, fell and “we got run over.”
Then on May 24 this year she was on Reflective Glory when the horse went down with a broken leg. Sanguinetti was out of racing for weeks with a deep ankle bruise.
But Slammin’ Kitty and Reflective Glory will never race again. Both horses were euthanized.
Many of the worst injuries to horses can’t be fixed. The injury may cut off blood to the lower leg, problems may develop in another leg when the horse’s weight is shifted from the injured one. And horses are not very good patients, often thrashing about and reinjuring themselves. Most horsemen consider it inhumane to keep horses alive to suffer something that can’t be fixed.
Watching a horse sustain a fatal injury is not something you want to see. The track doesn’t want that, either, and has been making changes to reduce horse deaths since 2008 when 36 horses died, 11 from racing injuries.
Last year, 16 horses died at Emerald Downs, eight of them from racing injuries, less than two for every 1,000 horses that started races. Another four died in training and four more in the barns.
Since 2008, Emerald Downs has adjusted the surface mix of its track, state racing commissioners outlawed a type of horseshoe present in 90 percent of catastrophic injuries to horses nationally and, three years ago, the track started pre-race inspections for all horses. If veterinarians believe a horse is unsound, they can prevent it from racing.
“The veterinarians say the inspections have made the trainers more diligent in withdrawing horses themselves,” says Doug Moore, executive secretary of the Washington Horse Racing Commission.
The reduction in the number of horse deaths is one piece of evidence that unsound horses are being kept from racing.
State racing officials have tried to address other issues facing the sport. In June, the racing commission adopted new medication regulations that closely resemble those advocated by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, a national group seeking uniform rules “to ensure the integrity of racing and the health and welfare of racehorses and participants.”
Medication violations at Emerald Downs have been in decline since 2008 when there were 18 infractions. Since then, most have been for overages on permitted medications.
THE RACING INDUSTRY can’t afford to lose Thoroughbreds because there are fewer and fewer of them.
The annual number of Washington Thoroughbred foals has dropped steadily, falling below 1,000 in 1999. Only 313 were born in 2012, and with only 317 mares bred in 2013, this year’s number won’t be much better. The foal crop nationally is estimated at 22,000, half of what it was in 1989.
Fewer horses means fewer races and fewer starters in each race, which means fewer betting opportunities. Bettors with winning tickets split the total amount bet after Emerald Downs takes 16.1 percent wagered on straight bets (win, place and show) and 22.1 percent of all “exotics” (such as exactas).
That’s the money that provides purse payouts to the owners, breeders, trainers and jockeys. If the purses go down, there’s less incentive for new owners to get in the game or for breeders to produce more foals.
Both Metz and Howard Belvoir, 70, a hall-of-fame trainer who has worked with horses since he was 12, say the drop in owners and horses is mostly because of economics: Estimates for keeping a horse range from $15,000 to $30,000 a year, which doesn’t include the initial cost of buying or breeding the animal.
Short of finding a Microsoft billionaire more interested in horses than in an NBA team, appealing to the masses might be the best way to attract new owners. This year, Emerald Downs formed the Emerald Racing Club (http://emeraldracingclub.wordpress.com), offering shares in a horse for $500. As a result, Dancing Yodeler, the club’s horse, has 128 owners.
Ron Crockett, president of Emerald Downs, says the track is holding its own.
More people are coming, the amount of money they bet is up, and Crockett estimates the purses will be up over what they were a year ago, thanks in part to the 15 percent contributed by the Muckleshoot Tribe, which owns the land under Emerald Downs.
From 1933 when Longacres opened until 1982 when Washington started its lottery, horse racing had a near monopoly on legalized gambling. Today, tribal casinos account for 80 percent of the $2.7 billion wagered in the state in 2013.
Even though horse racing accounted for just 1 percent of the gambling total, it still has an estimated economic impact of more than a quarter-billion dollars a year in the state.
FOR THE DIEHARD horseplayer, the day almost never ends. Once the races at Emerald Downs are over, simulcasting continues on the fifth floor where the TV monitors show races at other tracks. Betting windows are still open. (Heed the notices in the program: Bring only what you can afford to lose. And never ask where the ATM is.)
But watching a race on TV is a poor substitute for standing at the finish line, a bet laid on a horse that looks ready.
The “call to post” rings out from the track’s bugler. The horses — some prancing, eager to run, their coats aglow; others, not so much — are led past the grandstand, jog a bit and get loaded into the starting gate.
A bell rings, and “they’re off!,” track announcer Robert Geller cries in his Australian accent. On the far side of the big oval track, the horses and their riders are a blur of bright silks, bobbing heads and flowing tails as Geller continues the call. “Immigration leading with the first challenge coming from Vegas Burn . . . ”
Then, in just moments, the moving mass rounds the turn and heads into the stretch. The rail fence is packed with people leaning forward, hoping to see their horse in front. The horses gallop toward the finish, dirt flying, jockeys crouched and urging them on, the crowd shouting now, encouraging their favorites to cross the finish line first. “Showmethemoneyjim on the outside . . . It’s three across the track and very close.”
Then the pounding sound of hoofs and a flash of animal might streaking by. “Either Vegas Burn or Showmethemoneyjim. A photo finish.”
The crowd stirs nervously, waiting as the winner is decided. Will it be profitable excitement or just sheer excitement?
Either way, you know you’ll be back.
John B. Saul is a former Seattle Times editor. He has written about Emerald Downs since 2005. Lindsey Wasson is a Times staff photographer.