Dan Harrington started playing “Call to the Post” on his trumpet about 10 minutes before the first race Wednesday night at Emerald Downs, and two fans raised their beers and yelled at him, “Cheers bugler.”
Once again, everything seemed normal at the Auburn racetrack.
Emerald Downs was certainly a happy place as it opened its 26th season because fans were back after a year without spectators because of COVID-19.
“It’s about time,” said Harrington, who has been playing his trumpet at Emerald Downs since the racetrack’s second season. “Last year, it was so unknown. I am at a loss for words.”
Harrington played on the opening day of the season last year, but that was it.
“I missed it, of course,” he said.
A few minutes later, the crowd came to life when the horses left the starting gate.
No one was more excited than Vicki Ringos, who started yelling, “Go Maddie” as Madigan Squeeze took the early lead. She continued screaming as the horse widened its lead.
Ringos hugged a friend when at the top of the stretch it became obvious the horse wouldn’t be caught, then started dancing as Madigan Squeeze finished off her 11 1/4 length win.
Ringos works for Swag Stables, which co-owns Madigan Squeeze. She might have been the loudest fan, but there were cheers everywhere.
“You can’t believe how awesome this is,” Ringos said.
Track announcer Tom Harris agreed.
“It’s fantastic; it’s a long time coming,” he said of fans being back. “I think you heard the results in the first race, the roar of the crowd.”
Harris said it was weird last year announcing races without fans while knowing people around the nation were watching via simulcast.
“When you are used to people wall-to-wall in the grandstands and then all of a sudden it’s just quiet, it’s a real different feeling altogether,” Harris said.
Attendance is being limited to 25 percent capacity (about 2,400). It was a near sellout, but no one had to be turned away on a sunny night.
It was a return to normal for Joe Withee, director of publicity and broadcasting for Emerald Downs since the track’s beginning.
Withee works out of a broadcast site that is perched on a spot overlooking the paddock. He analyzes races on the racetrack’s live video feed, and is used to big crowds around him.
Then came last year.
“I spent all last year in this beautiful set, and nobody around but our cameraman, me and a security guard walking through once in a while,” Withee said. “It looks great (with fans). It’s a milestone passed.”
Great return for Couton
Jockey Julien Couton had quite a night in his return to Emerald Downs, winning the second, fourth, fifth and sixth races.
Couton was the leading rider at Emerald Downs in 2015, but did not come back to defend his title and has been based in Northern California since.
Couton has occasionally returned in the past few years to ride in stakes races, but is now back full-time. The move certainly looked smart after the first day of racing.
- Jockey Alex Anaya had the season’s first winning ride aboard Madigan Squeeze.
- A new wager at Emerald Downs debuted in the eighth race, a 50 cent pentafecta (first five horses in order).