It was the opening night of racing this year, and the first day of the racing season is still a special day for Don Munger.
AUBURN — Don Munger didn’t think he would be around for this party.
When the 89-year-old developed some serious health issues a couple of months ago, he said, “I thought it was curtains.”
But there he sat Friday night, with family and friends in front of the large TV screen in the second-floor lounge at Emerald Downs, watching the four horses he owns and trains. It was the opening night of racing this year, and the first day of the racing season is still a special day for Munger.
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“Opening day is always big because you’ve been getting ready all winter and spring, and now it’s finally time to see what you’ve got,” he said.
Despite a blustery, cold and rainy night, a large crowd was on hand for the festivities, with a number of local celebrities in attendance.
The weather certainly didn’t spoil the night for Munger.
He was just happy to be here after a week in the hospital and a couple of weeks in rehab. But he overcame pneumonia, blood-sugar issues and a significant loss of weight and returned to his Enumclaw home a couple of weeks ago. It’s the kind of toughness you would expect from a Marine who fought on Iwo Jima in World War II.
The best therapy for him was getting back to his barn at Emerald, which he was able to do at the start of this week.
“All of my troubles go away when I’m there, because all I think about is the horses,” Munger said.
Munger had one of the best years of his training career last year, which is saying something because he has been doing it so long he can’t remember what year he started.
“At least six decades, and maybe longer,” he said.
Munger was the leading owner last year at Emerald Downs with 20 victories, nine more than the next highest, and trains all of the horses he owns.
Munger watches from the bar because his eyesight is poor and the TV is large enough that he can follow his horse.
Munger did not get a win on opening night. But it was a great start again for jockey Javier Matias, who for the second straight year won the first race of the meet. Matias guided Southern Solution to a hard-fought win by a head over Private Password.
Matias’ horse was overtaken at the top of the stretch, but fought back to reclaim the lead with about 100 yards to go. Last year, Matias won the first race of the season on Alison Ridge.
Southern Solution is trained by Mike Puhich, who trained last year’s Longacres Mile winner, Taylor Said. Among the first to congratulate Puhich was Mike Tice, the former Seahawks tight end and Minnesota Vikings coach. Tice often went to Longacres in Renton while a Seahawk in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“We try to get out to Emerald Downs each summer, and since I am not coaching, I thought it would be great to be here on opening night,” Tice said. “And one of my best friends is the leading trainer (after the first race).”
Puhich joked that Southern Solution was a head case and said he figured the horse “would either win or finish in the infield pond.” He said he was “thrilled to win the first race of the year.”
Just as happy was Munger. He wasn’t feeling good Friday morning, but felt fine in the evening.
“The races have me feeling better,” he said.