AUBURN — The horses didn’t quite outnumber the humans Wednesday, but it was pretty close. The thousands that normally fill the stands on opening day at Emerald Downs had been reduced to a few dozen.
No cough went unheard, no sneeze went unnoticed. But there weren’t any complaints — sports were back in Washington.
Horse racing had the day to itself as the first live sport to take place in the state since the coronavirus shutdown. Fans weren’t allowed in — and the only folks in attendance were trainers, owners and other essential contributors to a horse’s team.
But there were plenty of people watching on television and letting their money ride. By day’s end, the handle was more than $1.6 million.
That’s more than twice what was wagered on June 28 of last year, the closest comparable date in 2019. And former Emerald Downs owner Ron Crockett, who now serves as a consultant at the track, doesn’t think that’s due to opening day buzz.
To him, this was the result of a sports-starved fan base. And he’s grateful as can be that he could see it happen.
“If this did not open today, even without fans, I think the industry was in question. I think the industry is being saved today. This is really important.” Crockett said. “This industry has such a value to the state that people don’t realize the number of employees that it takes and all the haygrowers, and the veterinarians and all the green space that these farms are on, training centers — it’s a very large industry.”
There was a time when Crockett feared opening day may not come this year, which would have left hundreds of people out of work. But after a two- month delay, the Thoroughbreds were back on the track with their trainers and owners cheering them on.
One was Kari Toye, husband of trainer Joe Toye, whose horse Vrosky won the second race of the day.
Kari described how she had been waiting… and waiting … and waiting for Vrosky to get on the track and certainly seemed pleased when he took first. And though winning is winning regardless of the circumstances, a fanless grandstand does diminish the thrill to a degree.
“You still get excited for the race, but you don’t get the biggest adrenaline rush,” Kari said. “It’s good, but it’s not the real high. But I appreciate being out here given all the problems.”
Trainer Blaine Wright didn’t seem to lack any adrenaline Wednesday. He smashed his program into his hand and screamed as his horse Freestone separated from the pack in the fourth race and came away with the victory.
Wright grew up in the horse-racing business. He said it’s what he gets up for every day, and that “if you don’t get nervous, you should get out.”
But he also wanted to give a shout out to the horse’s ownership group, Chappell Alpine Farms LLC, for paying the bills.
That’s a point Crockett emphasized as well. There are about 800 horses in the Emerald Downs stables and it’s not cheap to keep them there. Owners of all kinds had to step up over the few months knowing that the season might not happen.
It’s happening, though. And the hope is to have spectators as coronavirus-related restrictions ease.
But even without fans, we still have racing in Washington. That might not have meant much to the average sports die-hard a few months ago, but they’ll take notice now. At least track president Phil Ziegler hopes so.
Like everyone else, Ziegler had real doubts as to whether there was going to be a season. But now he’s thrilled that he can provide a product that “brings some pleasure to people’s lives.”
As for the opening-day atmosphere? He’s OK with it — just this once.
“It’s a day we’ll never forget,” Ziegler said, “but we never want to do it this way again.”