Sports

A gem in the rough at Emerald Downs

Sometimes a sports writer gets lucky and finds a real "feel good" story when he doesn't even expect one and that's what happened to your formerly ink-stained reporter last weekend in Auburn.

I visited the 14th opening of Emerald Downs to play the ponies, hobnob with the rich and near-rich and famous, have some complimentary food, down a couple of glasses of wine and visit old friends.

Wow! What an opening as 10,256 adults paid their way into the plant (they don't count youths younger than 18) and it was a perfect weather night, even though it had rained and stormed all day long. Big contrast to 2008 when it snowed on opening night and 5,937 showed up.

I talked with track founder and president Ron Crockett in the Kentucky Derby suite.

"It's the biggest opening night crowd I can remember in a long time," he said.

The track ran out of parking late, ran out of food in some concessions and had horrible lineups at the mutual windows.

Crockett also owns a huge stable of horses. He has 26 horses in the barns and had former Longacres Mile winner The Great Face going in the feature race. (The Face led early, but faded to third).

Rest of the story

As I looked at my program, I discovered Sequim owner Sharon Radke had a horse going in the second race of the night and trainer Brad Varner was ready to go. They also had a horse entered in the sixth race, so I hustled down to the paddock area to talk with my good friends.

As I stood in the saddling area, I looked around, but no No. 9 horse, Polish Pleasure. No Varner, no Radke. So, as it was nippy outside, it was back up to the sixth floor and more wine.

After the fifth race, I hurried back to the paddock and met up with Radke. Turns out Polish Pleasure got the sneezes during the day so they pulled the filly out of the race. It was to be her first time on the track.

Her sixth racehorse was Devine Style, a bay gelding, foaled in March 2004 by Individual Style out of Say Grace First. Radke and Varner are the breeders. He had a couple of seconds and thirds and got tired last year but has trained well and Radke was hoping to start on top and finish on top in the 5.5-furlong race.

Varner was busy saddling the horse and walking around the paddock, then it was time for jockey Debbie Hoonan-Trujillo to climb aboard and head for the track. Hoonan-Trujillo has been riding in Portland and was happy to be back at Emerald Downs.

I followed Radke and two good friends to the betting windows and there were long lines as the horses walked the track and warmed up. I made it to the window to bet $2 across the board on Devine Style, then I craned my neck to see over the crowd as the horses left the gate.

Devine Style was away alertly to stalk the leaders from the outside No. 8 post position, moved up to take a slight edge with a furlong to run, vied with Brite Oakie through the final furlong and was fully extended (little race track lingo, folks) to hold Bucky B. Lucky at bay late, winning by a half length.

It was screams of joy for Radke and her friends as we all wound our way to the finish line and the winner's circle where proud owners and trainers wait to greet their horse and jockey. I made the mistake of being inside the ring and almost got run over by Devine Style as Hoonan-Trujillo brought him in to great applause.

Then I looked up on the tote board and my $2 wager had turned into $21.20 to win, $11.40 to place and $6.60 to show so I was ahead about 33 bucks. That made up for race No. 1 when I had a trifecta of 2/over all/with 3-6 in third. The two won, the six was second and the 3 was scratched at the last minute, so I only lost $8 of my $14 bet as they returned $6 because of the late scratch.

For Sharon Radke and Brad Varner it's a labor of love. She got her first horse when she was 8 years old. "It costs way more than I can afford," Radke said, to board a horse but Varner gives her a break in trainer's fees as he is a part owner.

With three horses at the meet, the $3,135 paid to the winner of race six probably won't cover this week's feed bill, but it's the thrill of victory that counts.

By the way, it was a $4,000 claiming race and nobody claimed Devine Style. One horse, Stunning Style, was claimed.

Disclaimer: I was in error last week in saying wagering can be done at

7 Cedars Casino. Although the facility is listed in the program as an off-site betting area, the casino is not offering the service this year due to remodeling of the keno and bingo area. Word is that off-track wagering may return this summer.

Reach Scooter Chapman at scooter@olypen.com.

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