A trainer’s life remembered

Jim Penney took out his first trainers license in 1954. He died Feb. 21, 2017. Courtesy photo.

There will be an empty spot at Emerald Downs this season.

For the first time since the Auburn track opened in 1996, the smile of Jim Penney will be absent from Quarter Chute in the mornings, on the backside, and in the winner’s circle during race days.

Jim was an icon of Washington thoroughbred racing. All that is right and true was wrapped up in his stout frame. His weathered hands spoke of a man who spent his life doing what he loved — raising and training thoroughbreds.

Jim died Feb. 21 at Homestretch Farms, his home in Edgewood. He was 82, and had been ill for some time. His death may have been expected, but there was that shock, and the knowing that he will never stand on the backside of the track or walk through the Chute again.

He was born to be a thoroughbred trainer. Jim came into this world on July 4, 1934 in Portland, Ore. He grew up in Naches, Wash. during the era when horse racing was king. His grandfather, A.E. Penney, raised thoroughbreds on his farm along with cherries and pears.

Jim Penney took out his trainer’s license in 1954 to help his grandfather’s racing stable. The love of thoroughbreds and the racetrack was already written in the code of Jim’s DNA.

The racing statistics paint a picture of consistency and remarkable success. He posted 662 wins at Emerald Downs, 50 stakes and more than $8 million in earnings.

He was the leading trainer at Longacres Park in Renton in 1968, Emerald Downs in 1998, and he was the top trainer at Yakima Meadows with 490 victories and 17 training titles.

If you name a track on the West Coast, Jim raced at it and won. In California there was Bay Meadows, Golden Gate, Tanforan, Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. There was Turf Paradise in Arizona and Hastings Racecourse in Canada. The list includes tracks closed long ago, including Yakima Meadows, Longacres and Playfair in Washington.

Jim was inducted into the Washington Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in 2003. At the top of his long list of accomplishments stood the record five Longacres Mile victories — Silver Mallet, 1973, Theologist, 1977, Edneator, 2000, Sabertooth, 2002 and Flamethrowintexan, 2006.

He touched many lives in countless ways. His son-in-law Bryson Cooper won his first Longacres Mile riding Theologist for Jim.

In a release from Emerald Downs, Cooper said, “He left no stone unturned. He was on top of every little problem, knew everything about all of his horses. He was more than a trainer.”

Emerald Director of Media Relations Vince Bruun said, “I was working for the Everett Herald and was dispatched to Yakima to cover the state high school baseball playoffs, and I believe it was Memorial Day weekend and unbelievably hot outside, nearly 100 degrees. I snuck over to Yakima Meadows to catch a couple of races, and one of them was for maiden 3-and-4-year-old fillies with a whopping purse of $1,100. I went over to the scorching hot paddock and I noticed Jim walking a filly over from the backstretch to the paddock for the upcoming race. Since most of the personnel apparently were at Longacres, Jim was a one-man show — trainer, hotwalker and groom, and he was drenching sweat from the hard work in the hot sun. The filly ended up winning the race, earning about $600 or $700 for her efforts, and Jim — despite the miserable working conditions — was just beaming with the biggest smile in the winner’s circle. It made an impression on me for some reason, I guess because you could just tell that this was a man enjoying what he was meant to do, training horses.”

Emerald Downs will open for its 22nd season Saturday with the sounds and smells of the thoroughbreds rounding the far turn, jockeys jostling for position in the stretch and coming home.

For the first time in 22 years at Emerald, Jim Penney will not be in the winner’s circle, settling a winning horse, shaking an owner’s hand.

He will be remembered every time the winner’s circle bell rings for Homestretch Farms.