It certainly hasn’t been the season Emerald Downs had hoped for at the start of the year, but the Auburn racetrack has been able to make the most of a bad situation.
Because of restrictions imposed to try to stop spread of coronavirus, the track had to open more two months later than planned, and when racing finally began June 24, it was without fans.
The track, which had been scheduled to hold races Friday-Sunday most weeks in the summer, switched to a Wednesday-Thursday schedule because there would be less competition those days for simulcast wagering across the nation.
The move has obviously worked, with the track averaging $1.93 million in handle (the amount wagered each day), up 72% from last year’s 1.12 million.
While the increase is impressive, most of the handle is from out-of-state wagering. It takes four dollars bet out of state for the track to make as much money as it gets from one dollar bet at the racetrack.
Still, the numbers have been better than track president Phil Ziegler had expected. The racetrack is planning on sticking with a Wednesday-Thursday schedule through the end of the meet, which would be Oct. 15.
That would be 34 racing days; the schedule was for 63 racing days before the coronavirus pandemic.
Although there is one less day of racing per week this summer, Ziegler noted that 10 and 11 races are being held on race days, substantially more than the average in previous seasons.
“We’re almost running the same amount of races in two days that we were in three days a week last year,” he said. “Last year, we typically had 25 races a week, and this year we’re running 21 or 22.”
The field size is up from last year, with an average of 7.7 horses per race this year; last year’s average was 7. Bigger fields typically lead to more money being wagered.
“We’re very happy with our horsemen’s participation,” Ziegler said. “The field sizes have been good, the races have been really competitive and exciting — a whole lot of long shots with a couple of Pick 5 carryovers that have helped the pools. It’s certainly different than when you have a huge crowd here, but we’ve put on a pretty good show.
“It has exceeded our expectations with the amount of races we have been able to have, and the field sizes, and the betting handle generally follows those things. The handle has exceeded our expectations because the horsemen have supported the program.”
The biggest race of the season, the Grade III Longacres Mile, is typically held on a Sunday afternoon in August. This year it is scheduled for Thursday night, Sept. 10. It will be the first time the race will be held under the lights.
Change has been the norm for this season. The racetrack has adhered to strict protocols, and there have been no known cases of the coronavirus at the racetrack.
“You always have to make the most of a situation like this,” Ziegler said. “The most important thing was to do it safely.”