April 18 marks the 20th year of thoroughbred horse racing at Emerald Downs and another evolution for the sport in Washington that extends back to the opening day of Longacres Park in 1933.
The historical timeline of thoroughbred racing is a story of highs and lows with many wins and losses while the horses continued to travel around the 1-mile oval track.
The most recent turn came in November 2014 when the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe announced that an agreement was reached with Northwest Racing Associates to purchase the Emerald Downs racing facility.
PASSING THE TORCH
For an outside observer the change of ownership appears to be little more than a series of LLC corporate names and titles.
Below those corporate names and titles are many people who worked, and at times fought very hard, to keep thoroughbred racing alive in this state.
Topping that list is Ron Crockett. He was the president of Northwest Racing Associates and since the opening day of Emerald Downs he has lead the day-to-day operations of the track and the industry in this state.
On Sept. 21, 1992 Longacres Park in Renton closed its gates for the last time, ending a 59-year run. Longacres was sold to Boeing by the Alhadeff family, heirs of the track’s founder Joe Gottstein. According to the 1992 Longacres Park Commemorative Year Book, Boeing paid the Alhadeff family an estimated $90 million. The day it closed many thought the last thoroughbred had raced in Washington.
Crockett was not one of them.
A look back at the many articles written – beginning in 1990 when the announcement was made that Longacres would close, to 1996 when Emerald Downs opened – tells a complex story of many people working to keep racing alive, sometimes at cross-purposes.
The inside story of the last days of Longacres and the founding of Emerald Downs is far beyond the scope of this article.
The short version centers on Crockett – a 1957 Renton High graduate who in 1962 earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington.
His passion for the sport is evident from this anecdote. He started going to Longacres when one of his college friends got a job working for the track. Crockett bought his first horse through a claiming race in 1974. The racing hook was set, but his first win did not come for 16 years with Saucy Affair in the 1990 running of the Tukwila Stakes.
That 16-year period fired a love of thoroughbreds in Crockett and he would go on to become one of the leaders in a partnership that saved racing in the state.
Crockett, with other racing enthusiasts and investors, formed Northwest Racing Associates. The partnership was able to follow a thread through a labyrinth of legal, legislative and land-use issues to finally build Emerald Downs and bring live racing back to Washington on June 20, 1996.
Emerald Downs trainer Frank Lucarelli said, “There wouldn’t be any racing at Emerald Downs if it wasn’t for Ron Crockett. He’s the reason racing is here.”
The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe was involved in the state’s horse racing industry long before the ownership announcement in 2014.
In 2000 the Tribe had planned on purchasing Playfair in Spokane, but the deal was never completed.
The Tribe purchased the 157-acres where Emerald Downs is located in 2004.
When the Tribe took over the day-to-day operations of Emerald Downs, Muckleshoot Tribal Council Chair Virginia Cross said in a release, “The Tribe’s long-standing support of the state’s thoroughbred racing industry continues with this transaction. It is the Tribe’s goal to keep the thoroughbred horse racing industry as a viable part of our state’s economy. Emerald Downs sits in the center of the Tribe’s historical homeland and this transaction makes it an important part of our economic development program.”
After purchasing the land in 2004 the Tribe began contributing to purses and, according to a release from the track, the enhancements have reached more than $11 million through 2014.
Since assuming ownership, Phil Ziegler, executive manager and president of Emerald Downs Racing, announced a 20 percent increase in daily overnight purses along with a ship-and-run program paying a $400 bonus to owners in the first start for their out-of-state horses at Emerald.
With the opening day Saturday, Director of Racing Bret Anderson said the number of horses on the grounds is already up from the previous few years.
The 2014 winner of the Longacres Mile and Horse of the Meet, Stryker Phd, is training at Emerald with a repeat victory in sight for owners Jim and Mona Hour and trainer Larry Ross.
The 2015 jockey colony is shaping up to be one the strongest in years with the 2014 leading rider Leslie Mawing back in the saddle along with the Emerald Downs’ all-time leading rider Gallyn Mitchell and two-time Mile winner Juan Gutierrez.
Crockett will serve as a consultant for the 2015 season and he still owns races horses.
The first race will break from the gate shortly after 2 p.m. Saturday. Once again the horses will run, the crowd will cheer and pictures of the winners will be taken.
Horse racing is back.