Ready for horse racing? Emerald Downs begins its season on Saturday

Emerald Downs begins its 70-day live racing season Saturday with a first-race post time of 2 p.m.

The meeting, which features 29 stakes races highlighted by the 80th running of the Longacres Mile, will run through Sept. 27 with Friday, Saturday and Sunday racing.

It marks the 20th season for the Auburn racetrack, but the first under new owners. The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe purchased the track in November, but has owned the 157-acre property which Emerald Downs sits on since 2002.

In addition to on-track improvements — auto tote upgrades and a new jumbo screen, which is scheduled to be up and running in all its HD glory in July — one of the biggest changes will be an increase of approximately 20 percent in average daily purse distribution.

“We will continue to analyze and make the adjustments we need to make the track better for both the horsemen and the fans,” new Emerald Downs president Phil Ziegler said. “The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe has invested more than $12 million in purses, a million a year since 2004. Emerald Downs is a special place. They’ve shown their commitment to this.”

Earlier this year, the track also announced new horsemen incentives geared towards lowering horsemen’s out-of-pocket expenses.

The changes have already seen a spike in the horse population as the stable area has approximately 100 more horses than the same time last year.

According to Ziegler, that number is expected to continue to grow once Turf Paradise ends its meet as several trainers have indicated heading to Auburn following the Phoenix track’s closing day on May 5.

A total of 146 horses — a slight increase over last year — were entered for opening weekend, with 75 on today’s card and 71 on Sunday. Both days will feature a 10-race card.

Jockey Leslie Mawing and trainer Jeff Metz both return to defended their titles.

Mawing, who led all riders in wins (102), stakes wins (11) and earnings ($1,225,402) last season, will be joined be regulars Rocco Bowen (who finished second in the standings in 2014), Juan Gutierrez, David Lopez, Jose Zunino, Javier Matias, Jennifer Whitaker, Eliska Kubinova and Gallyn Mitchell, the track’s all-time leading rider and the only jockey to ride at every meet.

Newcomers Francisco Duran, Joe Steiner, Jake Barton, Julien Couton, Diego Sanchez and Alex Jimenez round out the deep jockey colony.

Every rider will have their sight set on the $200,000 Longacres Mile. The Grade III race is on Aug. 16. The stakes schedule kicks off on May 10 with the $50,000 Hastings Handicap for older fillies and mares, while WA Cup XIII, which features six stakes races, will take place on Sept. 13.

Racing will be held Saturday and Sunday during the first two weeks of the racing season before Friday racing is added on May 1 and continues through the remainder of the season.