AUBURN — You reach a certain age and sometimes you need a makeover.
Emerald Downs has given one part of the racetrack a major facelift heading into its 22nd season of live racing on Saturday, overhauling the fifth floor clubhouse to add a cardroom and sports bar.
Until this year, the fifth floor was a quiet place for fans who wanted to watch the races indoors, in a sleepy, air-conditioned atmosphere, with occasional bursts of cheering or cursing as the horses ran down the homestretch. The new additions, along with simulcast betting on racing from around the world, should keep the fifth floor lively late into the night.
But what will really get the rest of the track hopping is the thundering hooves of the horses. This year’s meet includes 70 days of live racing in Auburn between Saturday and Sept. 17. The meet begins with a special seven-race evening card, with a first post time of 5 p.m. and a fireworks show following the races.
Racing continues Saturdays and Sundays through the summer with a regular first post time of 2 p.m., and Friday evening racing will begin April 21. Each Saturday in July will move to evening racing, as will a special card before the popular annual fireworks show July 3.
The meet includes 32 stakes races, headed by the 82nd running of the $200,000 Longacres Mile on Aug. 13. Other highlights include Kentucky Derby day May 6 and the Washington Cup on Aug. 27, featuring seven stakes races for state-breds.
Barkley, last year’s 3-year-old champion, promises to be one of the leaders of the older stakes division after capturing three major races in 2016. Other top returning horses include 3-year-old So Lucky, who dominated the juvenile division last season, and Blazinbeauty, the filly who pulled off a stunner by beating the boys in last year’s Gottstein Futurity.
Last year’s leading jockey, Rocco Bowen, is back to defend his riding title. A 27-year-old from Barbados, Bowen won 110 races at Emerald Downs in 2016, 40 more than his nearest rival.
“It’s great to be the defending champion, but we’re all starting off level,” Bowen said. “We all have zero wins on opening day.”