“I CHOOSE MY horses by their names,” Debbie Bolanos explains. We’re sitting in the outdoor box seats at Emerald Downs on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. Below us, a bugler performs as the next group of Thoroughbreds promenades to the starting gate.

Bolanos says she picked a horse named Feather InThe Wind in a previous race “because I’m half Native American.” In the next race, she’s placed a small wager on a horse named Irish Knight — “because I’m half Irish.”


Bolanos has been visiting Emerald Downs since it opened in 1996. “I just love the screaming and the yelling and the excitement,” she says. “And the horses are so beautiful.”

We continue to chat as Irish Knight and his four opponents are situated in the gate. When the race starts, the small talk ends. Bolanos is locked in on the race. The horses are still at the far end of the track, but we know Irish Knight is number three, in yellow.

“Go! Go! Run!” Bolanos shouts, grinning from ear to ear. Irish Knight is in contention as the competitors thunder around the bend into the final straightaway. Unfortunately, a trio of other horses pulls away in the final sprint. “Oh, no. Come on, Irish Knight,” Bolanos says, holding on to a glimmer of hope.


“Ohhh, I lost,” Bolanos says as the race ends. “Darn. That Irish Knight didn’t work for me.” She’s down for only a moment. After all, her luck could change in half an hour, when more horses will race.

Located in Auburn, Emerald Downs is a 1-mile Thoroughbred racetrack that has been owned by the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe since 2015. Fans of all ages gather here each weekend from mid-May through mid-September to spend the day eating, cheering on the horses and — for those of age — placing friendly wagers.

Emerald Downs President Phil Ziegler says the average Emerald Downs attendee bets around $5 to $10 per race. “You can bet as little as a dime,” he adds.

Ziegler says that on the busiest summer days, as many as 7,000 people visit the track. Average daily attendance is around 2,500. Many, like Bolanos, are occasional visitors who enjoy the novelty of betting pocket change on random horses. Others, like Jeff Wilson, know the sport intimately and make complex bets for sums of money they aren’t comfortable sharing with curious writers.

“I look for different combinations of dozens of things,” Wilson explains. “Trainers, jockeys, past performance.”

Wilson’s enthusiasm with the sport began in college, when he was a waiter at Longacres, the predecessor to Emerald Downs, which operated in Renton from 1933-92. “I fell in love with the horses,” he remembers. “When I got enough money, I bought my first horse, and I’ve owned a bunch over the years.”


Charlotte and Jon Drueding visit Emerald Downs a couple of times a year. Today the West Seattle couple is poring over the event program, making final betting decisions on the afternoon’s remaining races.

Charlotte’s spirits are high after betting on a winning jockey with the same last name as her best friend’s boyfriend. For the next race, Charlotte has filled the three open spots (win, place, show) with the digits of her childhood address.

“We don’t know what we’re doing, but we have the best time.” she says. “Even if you’re losing, it’s so much fun.”