It has long been known as the Sport of Kings.
At Auburn’s Emerald Downs, the goal was to make horse racing the Sport of the Masses.
It’s a sport desperate for innovation, new fans and horse owners, and Sophia McKee decided to take a chance.
Welcome to the Emerald Racing Club, the newest group of horse owners at Emerald Downs.
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It didn’t take a huge stake to join this club.
Just $500. That was the price to buy into a horse at Emerald Downs for the season.
Training fees, vet bills and all the other expenses that come with owning a horse? All included in the $500. Just like all of the perks of being an owner, including free track admission, access to the paddock and backstretch and the chance to get to know your horse.
“We want this to be a hands-on experience,” said McKee, director of marketing at the track. “We want the owners to be able to come down and feed their horse a carrot. We want them to be really involved.”
When Emerald Downs began promoting the program, McKee hoped 50 people would sign on, but she was worried that was a bit ambitious. A similar program at Canterbury Park outside Minneapolis, where McKee got the idea, had a buy-in of $250 and attracted 60.
McKee got 128.
“It’s exceeded anything I could have imagined,” McKee said.
Rosses get on board
For McKee, perhaps the most important task was to find the right trainer for the club’s horse.
And in this case, trainers.
She knocked first on the stable of Larry and Sharon Ross, among the most respected trainers in the Northwest for decades. They liked the idea of the Emerald Racing Club, and immediately got in.
“I think anything that gets people involved in racing is great,” said Larry Ross, who trained the great Chum Salmon, winner of the 1985 Longacres Mile. “Sharon likes to do this kind of thing, and it was an amazing turnout.”
McKee knew not all trainers would be happy to add a horse that had 128 owners to answer to. She also needed to find a stable that had an open-barn policy (“with some ground rules, because we do have neighbors,” Larry Ross said), where the new owners could meet their horse up close.
“They were exactly what we wanted,” McKee said of the Rosses. “We wanted to pick someone where the horses come first. They show so much love and care for the animal. They certainly were the best people to put in front for our new horse owners.”
Picking a horse
The instructions to the Rosses were simple: Find a horse from out of state to buy in a claiming race, a horse that could race often while fitting into the club’s budget.
McKee wanted a horse from out of state to add to the horse population at Emerald Downs. Twice the Rosses put in claims for horses in races at Golden Gate Fields outside San Francisco. In both instances, others also put in claims and the Rosses lost in random draws.
But on April 4, the Emerald Racing Club got its first horse. Dancing Yodeler, a 6-year-old gelding, was claimed for $3,500 out of a race at Golden Gate where he finished third, beaten by just a neck.
He was just what the Rosses were looking for — a horse that runs often (he has 54 starts) and is competitive (10 wins, 13 seconds and six thirds).
“He’s a hard-trying veteran, who has a good chance to run 1, 2 or 3 every time and maybe win a couple of times,” Ross said. “He’s a nice, honest claimer. We’re not trying to make a million with him, but he should run well.”
Golden Gate has a rule that if a horse is claimed from a race at its track, it can’t run at an out-of-state track for 45 days. So Dancing Yodeler had to take a mandated break. He is eligible to race here after Monday.
The Rosses would like the horse to run six times this season — and he could start as soon as next week.
Larry Ross said the 45-day break might have been a good thing.
“He was running all winter, so a little freshening isn’t bad,” he said.
With the number of members so easily surpassing expectations, there was enough money for a second horse. The Rosses claimed Anelina, a 5-year-old mare, for $6,250 out of a race last Saturday at Golden Gate in which she finished fourth. She will be eligible to race at Emerald Downs after June 24.
Embracing the idea
When McKee went to the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association (WTBOA) with her idea of the Emerald Racing Club, she received not only positive feedback but two volunteers: Nina Hagen of El Dorado Farms, one of the state’s top breeding farms, and Rosalia DiPietro, a WTBOA board member and horse owner.
Hagen and DiPietro are there to answer members’ questions, set up times for owners to see their horses, and organize group activities, including a field trip to a breeding farm.
“A lot of people have dreamed of owning a horse, but they haven’t been out with animals a lot, much less a horse,” said DiPietro. “We’re trying to educate them on what to do and what not to do. I am just a big advocate of this program, getting more people involved in the sport that I love so much.”
McKee is handling the finances; each owner will get a complete rundown of income and expenses each month. If the expenses are more than what the club has, Emerald Downs will make up the difference.
Depending on how the horses do, the new owners could even make a little money, but that is not what this program is about.
It was about getting people involved in a low-cost, no-risk program that would hopefully spur some into someday buying horses on their own.
“Becoming a horse-racing owner is intimidating until you do it,” McKee said. “We wanted to give people a well-rounded education. For people who might have wanted to get into horse ownership, this is their introduction. We walk them through the whole process.”
Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or firstname.lastname@example.org