Horses battle down the stretch in front of a lone spectator in the sixth race at Emerald Downs in Auburn on June 24, 2020. (Doug Parry photo)

Horses battle down the stretch in front of a lone spectator in the sixth race at Emerald Downs in Auburn on June 24, 2020. (Doug Parry photo)

Empty stands at Emerald Downs leave empty feeling inside

The reality of the summer sets in when witnessing first-hand empty stands at a sporting event.

By Doug Parry / Special to The Herald

AUBURN — For a moment, it almost felt like things were normal.

The horses reached the quarter pole in the finale at Emerald Downs this past Wednesday and my hopes for a big payoff were riding on a 3-year-old filly named Port Lions, who had an easy lead. But my cheers turned to begging, then resigned sighs as Port Lions faded like the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI.

Then reality hit. I had not struck it rich. I had been just about the only person cheering. And I might not see another live sporting event for months because COVID-19 is still here.

Emerald Downs began its 25th season with no fans in attendance and just a smattering of racetrack personnel, media and horse owners on hand. The usual trappings of the racetrack were nowhere to be found. You couldn’t place a bet (you’d have to do that online); couldn’t buy a program; and couldn’t buy a beer or a chili dog — no doubt a health benefit to racing fans and their loved ones.

Some things remained the same as usual. Track trumpeter Dan Harrington called runners to post, albeit with a facemask between his lips and his instrument. Publicity Director Joe Withee and race caller Tom Harris’ voices could be heard over the loudspeakers. There were thrilling stretch drives and photo finishes. The summer air felt fresh, and Mount Rainier still loomed large over the clubhouse turn — at least, one imagined. It was shrouded by clouds all day.

And the horses didn’t seem to mind the lack of fans chattering in the paddock and cheering as they ran down the stretch. In fact, the high-strung ones probably preferred it that way.

But being there reminded me of what I miss about the experience of live sports. I want to go out with friends and family and share in the victories or complain about the defeats. I want the feeling of being part of a spectacle, of the tension in the air and the roar of the crowd when things get exciting. When you realize you’re the only one roaring, it feels exceedingly silly.

In an era when many tracks depend on revenue from casinos and online betting, Emerald Downs is a throwback, still drawing strong crowds throughout the summers and focusing on the horses. Business has never boomed, but it’s managed to sustain itself in an industry where many others have failed in recent years.

This year, the Auburn racetrack is running on a weird midweek schedule to chase those online betting dollars. The hope is to switch to a weekend schedule and allow fans in August if restrictions loosen up enough, but if I were a betting man (and I’m not sure anymore after Port Lions), I would tell you that’s looking like a long shot.

I started going to the track when I was a kid in the 1980s and my dad took me to Longacres. Now I take him to Emerald Downs. As we grow older and time speeds up, I appreciate each trip with him a little more. As I sat there alone, I thought about how the virus will almost certainly cheat us out of our time at the track this summer.

I can deal with losing a race. Losing those memories is tougher to handle.

Doug Parry is a former Herald editor and writer living near Mill Creek.

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