This track isn’t just for horses – corgis, wiener dogs, babies and more are racing too

Scott Hanson
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — The runners approach the starting line for the most popular race of the season at Emerald Downs. The excitement is palpable as thousands of fans eagerly await the start.

The noise of the crowd drowns the announcer’s voice as the race begins. It only gets louder until the winning corgi crosses the finish line.

Yes, corgi.

Because it’s not just horses racing these days at the Auburn racetrack. So are corgis, bulldogs, wiener dogs, kids, babies – even dinosaurs.

Pick any weekend day at Emerald Downs, and there is probably a non-horse-related promotion. It might be a novelty race, a cultural celebration or the Diaper Derby.

The goal is to attract more fans, and it has worked.

More:'He's a doll': 1970s heartthrob Erik Estrada touches hearts of York State Fair attendees

More:Second York County high school adds girls' wrestling as official sport

More:Sights and sounds from the 2022 York State Fair

Emerald Downs has bucked the fate of many racetracks nationwide that have seen on-track attendance decline dramatically, in large part because of at-home and simulcast wagering.

Promotions help keep bringing people to Emerald Downs, and none is more popular than the corgis.

“People love animals, especially dogs, and they just really enjoy watching them race,” said Ron Crockett, founder of Emerald Downs and the track’s president until November 2014.

Phil Ziegler became track president when the Muckleshoot Tribe acquired the racetrack in 2014, and promotions have expanded.

He realizes many people come for the promotions and not the horses. But they will get a taste of horse racing, and some might return.

“People love dogs, they love horses, and the connection is really strong,” Ziegler said. “They come out for one thing, but maybe they’ll fall in love with the other thing and turn into racing fans.”

The corgis have been a big hit at Emerald Downs since 2016.

Said Frank Lucarelli, the all-time leading trainer at Emerald Downs: “It brings a different crowd of people, and getting them introduced to horse racing that way isn’t such a bad thing. You’ve got all the people that come to watch the corgis, and some will say, ‘This horse racing is kind of cool,’ and they will come back. Even if it’s a handful, it’s a handful more than you had.”

In the beginning: Crockett remembers what he said in 1999 when Susie Sourwine, the track’s marketing director at the time, suggested holding wiener dog races.

“I said, ‘No, we race horses here,’ “ said Crockett, now a consultant to the track.

But Sourwine persisted.

“I was trying to picture it, and she was convincing,” Crockett said. “We’ve been doing it ever since and it grew into the corgis and the T. rex. The tradition has continued over all these years and Phil and his crew have taken it to even greater heights. I congratulate everyone involved.”

Ziegler doesn’t take credit for many of the ideas, noting many of the offbeat races have been held at county fairs for years.

But the Diaper Derby on July 2, when babies 6 to 12 months old competed in crawling races, might be an original at a racetrack.

More:'Like adult Legos': 18-year-old artist shines in community with metal sculptures

More:For Stewartstown Railroad's first female engineer, a childhood dream realized

More:Jordan Peele’s ‘Nope’ debuts at No. 1

“Babies racing is a tradition, but no racetrack ever thought to put babies on a mat, build a little track for them and have a race for them,” Ziegler said.

Not all promotions have lasted. Gone are the ostrich, camel and zebra races. But there is an openness to ideas. Good promotions boost crowds and they also fill the time gaps of about 25 minutes between races.

“Horse racing is very unique, because if you have nine races in a day, you have eight halftimes,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler’s theory is that on two or three of the “halftimes,” people will go to the paddock area to look at the horses. During another break, they might get a meal, and during another they might get ice cream.

“That’s like five halftimes filled,” he said. “If we give them corgi races, wiener dog races or something else during those in-between periods, they’re leaving at the end of the day saying, ‘Wow, that was an exciting, full day.’ “

The T. rexes are back this year after the 2019 race went viral.

The dinosaurs go viral: The T. rex races held in 2019 at Emerald Downs have been viewed more than 100 million times online.

“That race was original, but it was the brainchild of the Triguard Pest Control people,” Ziegler said.

Indeed.

“They had a team-building thing with their managers in 2015 and they came in togas,” Ziegler said. “They asked, ‘Can we run on the track after the last race?’ “

The track said yes, just as it did when the group returned the next few years in inflatable T. rex costumes. In 2019, the track had them compete during the race card and from the starting gate.

Ziegler posted video on Facebook that night, and it took off beyond his wildest expectations.

“You name every national media outlet from Time magazine to NBC, ESPN, and everybody ran it,” Ziegler said. “It was on lots of live newscasts around the country and all over the world. It was great.

“I believe that put us on the map to a lot people who never knew of Emerald Downs – nationally and internationally. You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Does it spill over into horse racing and betting? A little bit. But it does a lot for notoriety.”

And now they are back after a two-year hiatus because of the pandemic. Anyone who shows up in a T. rex costume Aug. 21 can participate.

“We’re going to throw as many T. rexes on that track as we can,” Ziegler said.

The corgis an instant hit: In 2016, Emerald Downs had its first corgi races.

Twelve thousand people showed up, instantly rivaling the annual July fireworks show as the track’s most popular promotion.

They are so popular that attendance has been capped at 7,700. With 12,000 people, Ziegler said lines to make wagers and buy concessions get too long.

The cap was also in effect for the July 3 fireworks show.

“7,700 was a good number,” Ziegler said. “The wait wasn’t long to get anything. And people have room to breathe, which you have to have these days.”

This year, there will be a parade of corgis, eight heats with 10 competitors each, and a championship race. The track will again produce a 30-minute telecast to be shown on ESPN2, when that network televises offbeat and seldom-seen sports as part of ESPN Ocho.

“We saw the social attention it got, even before we were in business with corgi racing, and we knew this was something that was fun and gathers a lot of attention,” said Johanna Goldblatt, an associate manager with ESPN programming. “When it was a big hit last year on the Ocho, I wasn’t too surprised.”

Goldblatt said of “29 programs of the day, it was the sixth overall performer.”

The corgis got a lot more exposure last year when the main ESPN network showed 18 minutes of the half-hour show to fill a time gap when an MLS game ended sooner than expected.

“After the Ocho airing and we saw how much fun everyone had watching it, and how much buzz there was around it, we knew that we were going to have that in the back of our pocket,” Goldblatt said. “When the MLS game ended 18 minutes early, it seemed a really good way to fill the time. Those MLS fans stuck around to watch corgi racing apparently, and went to social media to talk about it.”

Sunday’s races will be on ESPN2 in early August; an exact date hasn’t been set.

“I’m so excited to see how it does this year, and see what new elements will be added,” Goldblatt said.

It’s not for everyone: While promotions undoubtedly bring people to Emerald Downs, some horsemen and fans grumble — if not too loudly — that the focus should on the horses and not on promotions.

“If you take the (horse racing) purists sitting on the fifth floor and betting on the Saratogas and the Belmonts, it’s generally not their cup of tea,” Crockett said.

Lucarelli said those in the horse-racing industry can be set in their ways and resistant to change.

The big crowds the promotions draw have won him over and he thinks other horsemen are coming around to liking them too.

“At times, I’ve thought, ‘Why are we doing this and why are we doing that?,’ “ Lucarelli said. “But when you sit down and think about it, it’s probably all good.”

Jockeys enjoy competing in front of big crowds, said rider Leslie Mawing, who thinks the promotions are a great idea.

Mawing also rides at Canterbury Park in Minnesota, another track on the cutting edge of promotions.

“As a racetrack, you try to attract as many people as possible,” Mawing said. “About 80 percent of households have pets, especially dogs, and incorporating that into your program makes it a fun day and people like to watch that.”

Another promotion Mawing really liked was the kids race at Emerald Downs during family weekend July 9-10.

A couple hundred kids got onto the track for a short run down the stretch, with entrants earning ice cream. Mawing went out to watch and passed out 30 pairs of his old goggles.

“As a jockey, you appreciate the crowds, and especially kids – seeing them enjoy the animals and the horses,” Mawing said. “Canterbury and Emerald are my two top tracks I like racing at, for the pure fact the crowds are big. It helps your morale, especially when you’re not winning all the time.”

‘Where the action is’: Lucarelli said when horsemen from out of the area come to Emerald Downs, they are surprised by the crowd sizes.

“They feel that vibe,” Lucarelli said. “It’s, ‘Oh man, you get people out here.’ Because so many tracks don’t attract people and I think they do a good job here.”

Joe Withee, director of publicity and broadcasting at Emerald Downs, said the extra few thousand people promotions draw make them worthwhile.

“I can’t see it as a negative at all,” he said. “It’s between the races, it’s animals, it’s fun. It just adds to the day, and who doesn’t want to see a lot of people at the track? Everybody wants to be where the action is. Jockeys love it and I think other horsemen like being part of a big crowd.”

The promotions will continue because people like them.

“I think what we do here is special,” Ziegler said. “I see the families walking out. Just look at their faces and listen to the crowd, and you know that it is working.”