Phil Ziegler, president of Emerald Downs, is confident there will be horse racing this season at the Auburn racetrack.
When it will start, and what it will look like when it finally does, will likely be decided for him.
Opening day was scheduled for Saturday, but that went away when Gov. Jay Inslee ordered non-essential businesses shut down through May 4 to combat the coronavirus.
In the meantime, more than 500 horses are in training, so racing could start fairly quickly once the track gets the green light to start. But until there is clarity as to how and when the state will reopen, operations remain in a holding pattern at the track, which has put most of its employees on furlough (while maintaining benefits for those employees).
“We’ve got contingency plans internally, but we are waiting to see what happens with the state first,” Ziegler said Tuesday.
The track was scheduled to have a 63-day season that ended on Sept. 20, but Ziegler said the end date could be extended until sometime around the start of November.
“The advantage that we have is our end date is flexible,” he said. “We know we’re going to start late. What it looks like when we do — how many horses we have and how many days a week we can run — those are things we will have to deal with when the time comes.”
There have been no reports of coronavirus in the stables, where about 100 grooms work, with most living at the track.
“So far, so good back there,” said Ziegler, who expects a big influx of horses from Arizona in the coming days. “We locked (the stable area) down very early in the process.”
Ziegler wonders when racing returns whether it will be in front of fans. A few racetracks around the country are holding races, but without fans. Those tracks have seen big increases in the amount of money wagered.
“Will there be a limit on the number of fans that can come later in the season?” Ziegler mused. “How does that look? We’re not making any of those decisions. We’ll play whatever hand is dealt. Horse racing is unique in that it can operate in front of a closed grandstand and people can watch and wager from home. It’s not the preferred method of operating, but getting the horses racing this year is our primary objective.”
Ziegler said he never lost confidence that would happen. It’s a matter of when.
“At least we’re staged and ready to go, because we have horses here who want to run,” he said.