Horse racing at Emerald Downs in Auburn returns Wednesday, kicking off its 25th anniversary season at the track, but perhaps the biggest news is that fans are returning, too.
After a shortened 38-day racing season with no fans last year, Emerald Downs will have 50 racing dates this season, with attendance limited to 25% of capacity.
Track president Phil Ziegler said that means about 2,400 fans can attend.
“We are excited,” Ziegler said. “Unlike last year when we were trying to figure out how to run racing without fans, it was a great pleasure coming up with how we were going to have fans to welcome back.”
Emerald Downs has traditionally had a weekend schedule, but switched to a Wednesday-Thursday schedule last year in hopes of increased online wagering, with those being light days of racing nationwide.
It worked as daily wagering averaged a track-record $1.796 million, a 61% increase from the 2019 average. Racing will continue on Wednesdays and Thursdays this year, at least at the start of the season, with Sunday racing starting June 20.
“When we start our Sundays, we will reevaluate the other days and see if we want to shift — certainly it is possible depending on how the state reopens,” said Ziegler, noting that a Thursday, Saturday, Sunday schedule was possible. “Under the (current) circumstances, it makes sense to run Wednesdays and Thursdays now.”
The largest crowds at Emerald Downs over the years have been on Sundays, and Ziegler said the start of Sunday racing June 20 “will be like opening day No. 2.”
The Grade 3 Longacres Mile is back on a Sunday (Aug. 15). Anothertwistafate won the signature race in the Northwest last year on a Thursday night. It was strange not hearing the typical loud roar of the crowd as the horses entered the stretch.
The roar is coming back — for every race — and Ziegler is grateful for that.
“There is nothing like having live fans at a racetrack,” he said.
Tickets are on sale for the first 10 racing days at emeralddowns.com. Tickets, if still available, will also be sold on race day at the track.
“We are going to encourage more online ticket sales,” Ziegler said. “Unlike any previous year, we could sell out, so we encourage people who are coming out to the races to buy their tickets in advance.”
Ziegler said the racetrack is “in the process of adding a vaccinated section in the general-admission area at track level where people will be able to show vaccination and not have to wear a mask and social distance.”
Ziegler is hoping that section will be ready for opening night.
* There are no special events scheduled this racing season, but Ziegler said, “We’re looking at later in the summer doing some of our most popular promotions” like relay races and corgi races and are looking into whether the track can have a July 3 fireworks show.
* Kevin Radke, who won the Emerald Downs riding titles in 2002 and 2003, is returning to the Auburn racetrack after not racing here since 2008. Radke, 49, has not ridden in any races since 2018.
He and his fiancée recently bought a farm in Auburn, where he started exercising horses, which led to this comeback. He is scheduled to ride in eight races Wednesday.