Despite no fans in the Emerald Downs grandstands on opening day because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, plenty of fans were watching and betting away from the track.
While seats were empty Wednesday afternoon at the Auburn track except for a few dozen racehorse owners, the 10 races reached audiences across the nation who bet from home or office on their phone or computer and at off-track sites.
Fans bet $1.65 million on the 10 races, above last year’s average daily handle of $1.11 million at Emerald Downs. The track, which had been shut down since April 18, received approval from the Washington Horse Racing Commission in May to open the 2020 season on June 24 with no fans in attendance.
“Total handle was very good,” said Vince Bruun, media relations director at the track. “The fact we had 10 races and good field size certainly helped the total, but I know management considered the day successful.”
Mobile wagering and off-track betting generates as much as 90 percent of the handle at Emerald Downs in a typical season, so the money’s flowing again at the track even without fans.
“Generally speaking let’s say maybe 10% to 15% of overall handle is at the track and the rest of it is off-track and mobile wagering,” Emerald Downs President Phil Ziegler said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of places you can bet on horse racing. A lot are still closed but others are open such as Arizona off-track betting and some other areas. Most today wagered will come from mobile platforms.”
But Zieger looks forward to when fans can return to the track.
“I hope we can get spectators here at some point in time,” Ziegler said. “I want to go to a baseball and football game and people want to come to the racetrack.We all want to get to that point.”
With the track shut down since its original opening day of April 18 because of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Washington plan, Ziegler was pleased to get the 25th season at the track going.
”Our number one thing was to get open, to get horses running,” Ziegler said. “We have horse owners who have been paying all the bills, folks that rely on this industry and they rely on purse money. …We are just happy to get going to start running some races for purses which helps out the whole industry, including us, so it’s a good day.”
More than 500 horses have been training at the track and staying in its barns since February. About 100 grooms take care of those horses and many stay in dorms at the track. COVID-19 precautions were started early, and Ziegler said there has not been one case of the coronavirus at Emerald Downs.
Owners were not allowed at the track to see their horses for a couple of months, as only essential workers could be present.
“It’s been a learning experience and required a lot of patience missing that April opener,” said Bob Buchanan, of Auburn, as he waited for his horse Norski to run in the third race. “I’m happy for today.”
No fans at the track also means fewer jobs as concessions and betting windows were closed.
“We had to furlough almost everybody,” Ziegler said. “Normally there would be about 500 people, we are somewhere around 100 to 150 (employees) here today.”
Once spectators are allowed, the track will return to its normal weekend racing schedule. But without fans, the focus becomes what days and times of the week will Emerald Downs face less competition from other tracks that people can bet on through TVG Network and other apps and websites.
“We originally planned to race Monday and Tuesday at noon, but other tracks jumped in,” Ziegler said about the switch to Wednesday and Thursday. “It’s important to get races on TVG network, we don’t want to be up against New York, California and Kentucky tracks (that run on weekends).”
Emerald Downs is scheduled to have a 44-day season, with racing twice a week through July and potentially three times a week for the rest of the year through Oct. 18.
“It’s been a little tough but we’re off and running now,” said owner Kenneth Elison, of Blackfoot, Idaho, after his Benny the Jet won the third race. “I love this complex. The people here are great. It’s a little more exciting when you’ve got a crowd but thank God we’re getting to run.”