Distinguishable, a 4-year-old fillie, sucked a carrot from Vince Bruun's hand.
"I find she's got a bottomless pit of a stomach," Bruun said. Which brings us to the heart of the problem: Owning a racehorse is really expensive. And the people interested in spending a fortune on racehorses are disappearing. "We're losing the whales in our industry," Bruun told me.
Emerald Downs has a plan to save the whales.
Horse racing is a quarter-billion dollar industry in Washington state, and most of that spending is tied to Emerald Downs in Auburn. It's had some setbacks (competition from casinos), and some triumphs (investment by the Muckleshoot tribe). But there's an underlying problem: Horses just aren't as central to our culture as they used to be.
When Bruun talks about whales, he’s not just talking about people who place big bets on horses. He means people who buy horses and support the ecosystem of small and large businesses that make up the industry.
“The guys and gals who invest in the very highest level,” he said.
Distinguishable, for example, cost $10,000. That’s to start. Horses must also be housed and fed. Owners must hire trainers and jockeys. Keeping a racehorse can set a person back $30,000 a year per horse.
“I would never tell anyone that it’s a path to riches,” said Bruun, “If you’re an owner and you break even, I think you’re doing pretty good.”
Whales drive an economy that includes agricultural jobs that once dominated the region from Auburn to Woodinville. Now, the last bastion of agricultural land is just outside the urban growth boundary, on the Enumclaw plateau.
As we've paved over the region, the attention of whales has drifted elsewhere.
I went looking for them at Pacific Raceways “Power Lunch” event, where car owners can spend their lunch hours (which tend to bleed into the afternoon) doing laps around the racetrack.
“Would you ever buy a race horse?” I asked Jeff Treloar, who drives a 2017 Mustang GT.
“No. Not that I don’t like horses. I prefer horse-power,” said Treloar.
“You just get that adrenaline rush," he said driving around the racetrack. "You are literally jacked up for days afterward and you just can’t wait to get out there another day.”
I heard there are women who come here too, but I didn’t see any on my visit.
The men driving around the track today have invested heavily in their cars, anywhere from a few thousand dollars to soup up the family car to a quarter of a million for a Lamborghini.
When he leaves, Shaft Wu puts a car seat back into his $70,000 BMW to pick up his kids. “A horse is not for me,” said Wu. “I wouldn’t even consider it. I don’t think there’s a way for me to describe a reason, because it’s just not on the list.”
Driver Max Holmes agreed. “I think you could walk up to a random person on the street and ask them what kind of car they like, and they would have an answer,” he said. “I don’t think you could do that about a horse.”
This is what Emerald Downs is up against: a culture that doesn’t value horses anymore. Horse racing has become an anachronism, a nod to days gone by.
That’s why Emerald Downs started the Emerald Racing Club.
The track made this pitch to the public: You can’t own the Seahawks or the Mariners; that’s too pricey. But for $500, you can own a piece of a horse for a year.
The pitch worked. It’s why Angelina Haggard joined the club and came to the track. “I brought my niece and my daughter with me today,” she said. “They wanted to come down and see our racehorse.”
But don't mistake her for a millionaire.
“We’re a middle-income family on a modest budget,” she said, “This was a great way for me to own a horse. And I now have 199 new best friends.” Because there are 200 members of the club who share ownership of the club’s two horses.
If the horses win, they split the winnings.
Many club members are new to horse racing. And they could be the sport’s future whales.
Veteran jockey Javier Matthias kept that in mind when they asked him to ride their horses. “I said, ‘You know what? It’s my pleasure, because it’s my job.’”
Matthias rode the club’s first horse, Distinguishable, the week before I visited the track. He won.
On the day I visited, he’d ride the club’s second horse, McDove, in her first race of the year. He hoped to win again. “I want to be 2 for 2,” he said.
Club members seemed to have no doubt he would pull off a win again. Bruun tried to tamp down their expectations. “If you start guaranteeing things in this game you get in trouble real fast,” he said. “I think she (McDove) can compete with these horses, but you never know. I’m already starting to get butterflies thinking about it.”
Out at the track, excitement started to build. A cheer went up as the loudspeakers announced the arrival of number 6, McDove. None of the other horses got cheers like that.
The Racing Club bet heavily on McDove, pushing her odds way up.
“Did you bet on your horse?” I asked people in the crowd whenever I saw people with the Emerald Racing Club “horse owner” identification tags.
“Absolutely,” replied pretty much everybody.
The bugler signaled everyone to turn their attention to the track. “And … they’re off!” cried the announcer.
Down in the crowd, the crowd’s reactions swelled with McDove’s progress around the track.
“She’s coming! She’s coming!”
As McDove fell behind, the mood in the crowd grew plaintive, then supportive as she passed the finish line in fourth place. In the crowd, I heard people giving her the benefit of the doubt: If she’d just had a little more track, they said, she’d have pulled it out.
“You can’t win them all,” Haggard said.
But Emerald Downs won. “I think if you expose 200 people to something, a certain amount of them might desire to go to a certain level higher,” Vince Bruun told me.
Some of them could become the kind of investors the sport needs. “The first year club of 2014, we had a couple of them went in very deep,” said Bruun. “They bought several horses and invested half a million dollars in the industry.”
People who invest in horses tend to bet on horses, because just being around horses pulls you in.
I came to the track resolved not to bet on a horse, but the horses have such funny names, and there was this one horse named "The Press."
“Okay, I’m a member of the press. So I want to put some money on The Press,” I said, pulling up to the betting counter seconds before the race began. “Can I put 10 bucks on The Press to win?”
I got my bet in, just under the wire. “What were the odds, anyway?” I asked.
“13 to 1,” said the man at the counter.
I lost that race. But from Auburn to Enumclaw, you can still find farmland with horses running on it. And even as urban development creeps south through Auburn, it looks like horse racing still has legs in South King County.
At least, I’d bet on it.