Since the sale was finalized, wagering at Emerald Downs has jumped 33 percent, prize purses are up 10 percent, the races feature larger fields of horses and the crowds watching are noticeably younger.

Share story

Inside sports business

A day at the horse races doesn’t automatically pop into mind as a destination for family time with the kids.

But pushing family-friendly entertainment is one of the ways Emerald Downs has bucked a decades-long national trend of Thoroughbred racing decline. It was exactly two years ago Sunday that the facility’s longtime owner, Ron Crockett, announced a sale to the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, saying he lacked the ability to take the facility where it needed to go.

Since the sale was finalized, wagering at Emerald Downs has jumped 33 percent, prize purses are up 10 percent, the races feature larger fields of horses and the crowds watching are noticeably younger. That growth comes after a Harris Poll last January showed that horse racing, one of America’s biggest sports as recently as the 1950s, now ranks only 13th most popular — down from eighth in 1985.

For Phil Ziegler, the New York-raised Emerald Downs president hired by the Muckleshoots two years ago, reversing the industry trend locally was a priority. Not just for now, but to ensure the facility still has patrons years down the road.

“There are so many different ways to enjoy Emerald Downs,’’ said Ziegler, a former Muckleshoot Casino marketing director who’d spent the past decade helping run a racetrack in New Mexico. “You get your hard-core horse players that are here every day and get to sit and watch the TV and bet on the races.

“But in the summer, on a warm and beautiful day, you start to see the families.’’

Of 70 racing dates held last April through September at Emerald Downs, 10 featured special promotions — many geared to families. There were “Wiener Dog races” and an “Indian Relay” bareback race in which tribes from several states competed.

The annual July 3 fireworks show at the track was held on a Sunday night this year and drew a crowd exceeding 13,000 — about the most the facility can comfortably handle. They also had a “Food Truck Festival” and a “Chocolate Festival” among other activities.

One program implemented to heighten interest among casual fans allows them to buy a yearly ownership “stake” in a horse for $500. Any winnings are capped at that $500 amount, but special perks include access to the grooming stables and free track admission any day of the week.

But dress it up all you want, there’s still a gambling — albeit legal — element to horse racing. And let’s face it, packing the family van for a trip to the casino isn’t exactly in the good-parenting handbook.

For now, though, Emerald Downs seems to be successfully navigating two very different cross sections of customers.

Ziegler argues there has always been a connection between Emerald Downs and families, something that former owner Crockett, 77, tried to foster upon founding the facility in 1996. The track’s Mother’s Day buffet has for years been one of its biggest attractions.

“The summer actually skews more female,’’ Ziegler said. “It would surprise a lot of people that this would be a destination for Mother’s Day. And yet, it’s a tradition.’’

Crockett maintains an office at the track and still acts as a consultant to daily operations.

Upon selling the track, he estimated business had fallen 35 percent since the track’s beginning. In boosting business since the sale, the new Muckleshoot ownership has enhanced what made the track popular for families, while improving the overall race experience for those who do bet money.

The Muckleshoots owned the track’s land before the sale and already had subsidized prize purses by $11 million since 2004. They’ve upped annual purse contributions postsale, along with other financial incentives to lure jockeys and horses to the track.

As a result, in two years, Emerald Downs has climbed from averaging a low of 6.2 horses per race to 7.4 this past season. And more horses means a bigger “handle” — the money wagered on races — pouring in from on-site bettors and those watching remotely on the TVG Network or online wagering platforms.

“Field size is very important if you’re betting on racing,’’ Ziegler said. “If it’s a five- or six-horse field, people don’t like to handicap those races. They love the Breeder’s Cup races because they’re all full field and they’re very competitive with good payouts. But if you have a five- or six-horse field … the race itself isn’t very bettable and it’s not extremely exciting for the fans.’’

Most handle growth has been from out of state, with the bigger racing fields drawing interest from afar — all of which gives Emerald Downs a financial cut via licensing deals with TV or online companies showing races remotely.

Again, that counters the national numbers.

A study commissioned by the Jockey Club — the sport’s breeding registry — found money wagered on North American horse racing peaked at $15.2 billion in 2003, but fell to $10.6 billion by last year as new gambling and entertainment options continue to emerge.

To attract an even larger national viewership, Emerald Downs tinkered with race times so they didn’t coincide with other cards across the country.

For local fans, they held four additional Saturday evening cards — starting at 6:30 p.m. instead of 2 p.m. — and drew a younger crowd Ziegler says was more “boisterous and enthusiastic” than usual. “It’s an experiment we felt worked very well, and we’re going to do it again next year.’’

That part isn’t surprising.

Be they young children with parents, or teenagers and young adults hanging out on a Saturday night, the goal is getting new faces through the gates. After all, only by convincing future generations that horse racing can be fun can Emerald Downs continue bucking the sport’s business trend in decades ahead.