(Auburn, WA) Hard to believe it has already been 20 years of history at Emerald Downs the track that was built to save the horse racing industry in Washington State. Longacres was the original and there was always this feeling that Longacres had been around for a hundred years but in reality they raced 59 seasons which means Emerald Downs is already a third of the way to Longacres total history, time certainly does fly.
The day was a hot and humid Thursday back on June 20, 1996. 18,000+ people showed up to welcome live horse racing back to Western Washington after a 4-year absence from 1992 the last year of Longacres to the opening of the new jewel of the Northwest.
That brings us to Monday evening with a good crowd on hand for the special race card and 20-year celebration. Even though the Muckleshoot Tribe now owns not only the property they purchased back in 2002 but the track itself after buying out Northwest Racing Associates in 2015, this night was a celebration of NWRA, the original investors and the racing family including everyone from management to the jockeys to the horsemen and of course the fans.
Current Emerald Downs President Phil Ziegler was more than happy to turn into a fan on this night as his predecessor and leader of NWRA Ron Crockett was honored. Ziegler told us that Ron and Jack Hodge, longtime and current VP of operations have much to celebrate and this is their night.
The night began with a familiar voice welcoming fans to the track. Robert Geller was the track announcer for 19+ years when he left about a year ago to take over the race calling duties at Woodbine in Toronto. Geller called the first 3 races then shared the mic with current announcer Matt Dinerman for the 4th.
This led to the honoring the 20-year employees that have been at the track from day 1. Then a special dedication to the founders, a presentation from the horsemen to the Muckleshoot Tribe, a look back at the 20 Longacres Mile winners at Emerald Downs from the very 1st Isitingood ridden by David Flores, owned by Mike Pegram and trained by legendary trainer Bob Baffert to last year’s winner Stryker Phd ridden by Leslie Mawing, owned by Jim and Mona Hour and trained by longtime Washington conditioners Larry and Sharon Ross.
The night was highlighted by a special ceremony honoring Ron Crockett where it was unveiled that Emerald Downs
Way that runs along the front of the track name was changed to Ron Crockett Avenue. Crockett and his family were on hand for the emotional event and he addressed the crowd thanking everyone from Hodge and the investors to all the employees and horsemen and most of all the fans.
We talked with Crockett who said this project was all about saving the industry and the hundreds of jobs from concession workers to horse breeders to hay growers to trainers and everyone in between. He says the fans have always supported the track and with more than 8,000,000 admissions through 20 years this is no exaggeration.
The night then honored the State Legislators who have supported the effort at Emerald Downs with legislation that helped keep the track up to date with the industry from allowing full card simulcast wagering to off-track betting sites around the state. However, both Crockett and Hodge say one of their proudest accomplishments is that the 83-million dollar facility was built with private money. The only concession NWRA got from the state was a sales tax deferment of 5-million dollars which was all paid back as of last year. Not 1 penny of tax payer money was used to build the track, something the billionaires in Seattle who own Football and Baseball teams can’t say.
Crockett also thanked the Muckleshoot Tribe for coming to the table and continuing the legacy he and NWRA began in Auburn. He told the crowd the industry is in great hands and will be here forever.
The night was unexpectedly cut short though as the 7th and final race had to be cancelled thanks to a thunder and lightning storm that rolled through. Literally they were within minutes of running the final event of this special day when the stewards cancelled the race citing safety concerns. However, despite how hard it rained there was no way it dampened the special day this was with the knowledge and proof that indeed horse racing is here to stay in Western Washington.
ESN spent the day at the track and we talked with former jockeys, current and former employees, trainers and more. Below is the response from each we talked with on what they remember about opening day 1996 or the favorite memories of the first 20 years. At the bottom of the page a full picture gallery from our day at the track, 20-years later.
Former Track Announcer Robert Geller
Robert Geller arrived at Emerald Downs in early June of 1996 after calling races in his homeland of Australia and
then in Hong Kong it was his chance to call the very first race of a brand new track. Geller’s memories of Emerald Downs began where most we talked with began the family feeling and camaraderie among all the employees and horsemen.
Geller said he thinks his call of Taylor Said winning the 2012 Longacres Mile was his best call of his career. Mario Gutierrez was fresh off a Kentucky Derby and Preakness win with I’ll have Another and continued that hot streak with the Mile win on Taylor Said. Geller also loved calling the Marathon Series and when Laffit Pincay Jr came to ride several days at the Auburn oval in his pursuit of passing all time winningest jockey Willie Shoemaker. Pincay achieved that goal but has since been passed by Russell Baze who started at Longacres but rode mostly in Northern California. Geller did get to call Russell Baze’s back-to-back Longacres Mile win’s on Sky Jack in 2003 and then ADreamisborn in 2004.
Geller also owned his first race horse as co-owner of Asummerforwindy. He says there are too many memories to think of them all but most enjoyed meeting and greeting people in the industry and fans. If you stopped by to visit him at the top of the stands from his booth there was usually someone already there.
Former Jockey and 1st Season Jockey Champion Vann Belvoir
Vann Belvoir burst onto the jockey seen at Longacres and made his name riding mostly in Washington and in Northern California. Belvoir only rode the Inaugural Season at Emerald Downs capturing the riding title with 148 wins and still holding on to the all-time win percent of nearly 24%. The 1st year of Emerald Downs would be Belvoir’s last year as a rider and he knew that when he decided to come home and finish his career. He simply was getting too big at 5’8 and 120+ pounds.
It’s not hard to see what may have been his best win at Emerald, it happened on opening day when he got the ride aboard Sneakin Jake for owner Murdoch McPherson and trainer Larry Pierce. Belvoir had a ride in every race on June 20, 1996 but it was Sneakin Jake’s win along the rail and by a nose at the odds of 17-1 that got Belvoir into the winner’s circle on opening day in the $60,000 Auburn Stakes.
Belvoir also cited winning 5 races later that season as a major highlight. After claiming the jockey title Belvoir retired from riding and quickly got his trainer’s license. Belvoir then went on to win the Winter race meet at Emerald in his first effort as a trainer becoming the 1st and only horseman to ever win back-to-back Championships as a jockey and then as a trainer. He remains a trainer now based in Southern California.
Joe Withee Longtime Director of Publicity
If you have ever been to Emerald Downs you know who Joe Withee is, the “other” voice for the track but certainly
has become the longtime spokesman for the entire industry. He does regular appearances on radio and TV with his own show on weekends on KJR the Win-Place Show. He began his career like many who worked and still work at Emerald Downs during the Longacres era. He has continued his passion for the sport to this day and is a human encyclopedia when it comes to horse racing facts and figures rarely having to look anything up when you ask him a question.
Withee has certainly seen it all from the beginning of this journey and reminisced about how they have already gotten to this point. Withee remembers the staff didn’t even move into the new facility until 5 days prior to the opening. But when Strawberry Morn crossed the finish line as the 1st winner in Emerald Downs history he knew the racing industry was back in Western Washington for good.
Some of the racing highlights he remembers were of course statistical oddities, right up Withee’s alley. His first was trainer Tim McCanna winning 4 races in an hour. He won a race at 7pm, then deadheated with 2 of his horses at 7:30 and then won the next race at 8pm giving him 4 winners in an hour.
Jazz n Windy won 4 straight years on June 27th was another statistical highlight, he also pointed out Vann Belvoir’s back-to-back jockey-trainer titles. Other highlights centered on the Mile where each year there is truly a new story to be told but admitted it’s tough to get past the 1st one with Isitingood winning the 1st Mile at EMD.
Jack Hodge Vice President and Investor
Jack Hodge joined the team with Ron Crockett early on in the effort to replace Longacres. Hodge a long time thoroughbred owner was ready to not only give money as an investor but his time to the project. His proudest moment came when the group finally passed all the hurdles thrown at them to get Emerald built from an extensive permitting process to ironing out all the details and plans to actually build the structure.
Hodge says when they got the final go-ahead and building began on April 8th, 1995 it took them just 14-months to complete this project. He remembers the controlled chaos of the final few days prior to the June 20th opening. The lawn for the park area was stacked on pallets, seats for the Grandstand still needed to be installed, tables assembled and so on but they made it. He is also proud of the family atmosphere he and Crockett and the investors wanted to create and it continues to this day.
His racing highlights over the 1st 20 years is being the leading owner in wins 1 season and his horse Guinevere’s 3 Stakes wins in 1998 leading to the Horse of the Year Honors.
All-Time Emerald Leading Jockey Gallyn Mitchell
Gallyn Mitchell stepped away from riding with virtually every single goal he had checked off. He won not 1 but 2 Longacres Miles starting with Edneator in 2000 at 41-1 odds setting a record at the time for the longest shot ever to win the Mile. Mitchell says he won on Edneator when they let him take the lead and set the pace. Mitchell says he sat on Edneator until deep stretch before he let go again to win the race. It was trainer Jim Penney’s 3rd Mile win.
Mitchell’s 2nd trip to the Mile Winner’s Circle was in 2009 aboard the Howard Belvoir trained Assessment. Mitchell says there is never going to be a first again but winning a 2nd Mile is like a quarterback winning a 2nd Super Bowl, its just a very elite club that has been able to accomplish it. Mitchell did say that winning from the #12 hole was also special with Assessment as only 1 of 2 horses to win from that post. The other was Coldwater in 1935 and there was a field of 16 in that race.
Mitchell is the only jockey to ride in all 20 Emerald Downs meets and is the all-time wins leader with 1,419 wins. He mentions horses like Fleet Pacific and Mocha Express as horses he will never forget but it’s the people from the backstretch to the front that is most memorable, a big family.
Mitchell was also one of the biggest cheerleaders for Emerald Downs and Horse Racing. Mitchell would always make himself available to do radio and TV appearances, interviews and always ready with a colorful and entertaining quote or comment. Mitchell added to his own mystique with several Hollywood credits as a stunt man. His last two appearances were in Seabiscuit and Planet of the Apes.
Mitchell is now retired and working on cattle ranches in Southern California. He won’t rule out a return to the racing industry in some form or another but right now he is happy with his retirement and will just take a wait and see approach to returning to racing but remains one of its biggest fans.
Trainer Frank Lucarelli
Frank Lucarelli was all set, he had horses, he was a successful trainer at Longacres and he loved being in Washington
State. He could raise his family and stay for the most part in one place. Then the rug was pulled out from underneath him like many of his colleagues. He now had to decide to either leave the state and uproot his family or hope someone would come along and save the industry.
So he decided to stick it out for a while. Between 1992 the final year at Longacres and the opening of Emerald Downs there were 3 tough seasons at now defunct Yakima Meadows. It got so bad for Lucarelli he had to turn to selling cars to make ends meet with his horses down to 4 or 5, but he stuck with it.
He has become a mainstay at Emerald Downs now with several training titles. He didn’t point out 1 specific win as a highlight but was quick to mention losing the Longacres Mile with Winning Machine by a head to Taylor Said in 2012 still hurts. He says you never know when or if you’ll get another shot at the big race.
On this night he was thrilled with his win in the 5th race the Ron Crockett Purse honoring the founder of Emerald Downs. Lucarelli says he owes everything to Crockett and the NWRA for his training career. He has also trained for Crockett so to win the honorary race was special. Wando Cat with Javier Matias came from off the pace to win the race, Lucarelli had another horse in the race who finished 3rd, Noble Nick.
Danny Wakgira Beverage Manager
He is hard to miss, he is Danny Da Man! Danny Wakgira has been part of the Food and Beverage management team from day 1. You are sure to spot him he usually has a huge smile on his face and he loves his job and he loves the racing industry. When Longacres closed Wakgira had several offers to go work elsewhere but he turned them all down. Wakgira said he wanted to stay and as long as there was a chance for racing to return he was not going to abandon the industry and the people he loved. He simply said it best…”this is my life”.
Wakgira was surprised with an honor he had no idea was coming from Vice President Jack Hodge in 1997 when he named one of his horses after him, “Danny Da Man”. Wakgira’s catch phrase is Da’ Man and he has been known for decades as Danny Da Man. Wakgira says he was sky high when Danny Da Man won his only race and Hodge insisted he join the winning party in the Winner’s Circle. He says it is the highlight and something he will never forget.
Gary Dougherty Reporter
Gary Dougherty fell in love with horse racing back in his days as a Seattle Times reporter and was honored when he
was chosen to be the public handicapper for the Times when Emerald Downs opened. He was now part of a small and elite group that picked horses for a living. Those days are long past with virtually no newspaper now with regular coverage of horse racing as the media business continues to be topsy-turvy and Dougherty is no longer with the Times.
He spends his days now working on a total historical record of Washington State Thoroughbred Racing while writing books and other projects for Emerald Downs. He too has a vast knowledge of the 20 years of racing at the Auburn oval and has created a large data base of information from individual statistics to combined stats such as jockey-trainer combinations and how effective they are together.
The memory burned into Dougherty’s mind from June 20, 1996 was the 18,000+ people who showed up to witness history. He wasn’t sure if the fan base would indeed return and so when they did he knew racing was back.
Some of his racing highlights include Gary Baze finishing his riding career at EMD, West Seattle Boy winning all 21 of his career wins at Emerald, Sabertooth setting a world record, Jockey Chelsea Zupan winning 7 straight races over a few days, Handy N Bold winning the Governor’s Handicap 4 times under trainer Charlie Essex along with many of the other big days at the track.
Grant Forster former employee and Trainer
Grant Forster had horse racing in his blood growing up in Vancouver BC where he learned the business from the ground up under his father and long time conditioner Dave Forster. He then attended the University of Arizona and graduated from the Horse Racing Management program and came to work at Emerald Downs as an intern working with the promotions, television and media departments.
After working for a few years on the administrative side of the business Forster realized his heart was really right where it began and that was in the barn as a trainer. Forster says being a part of this industry is like no other, working with such dedicated people from one end of the operation to the other.
A couple of early highlights for him were watching his Dad have great success at Emerald Downs while maintaining his home base at Hastings Park in Vancouver. Tucumcari winning the Hastings, King County and Breeders Cup Distaff in 1997 and then the Belle Roberts in 1998. Also in 1997 You’ve Got Action won the Derby. It was also the only time in the 20-year history that none of the winners got their pictures taken in the Winner’s Circle. The date was August 3rd, 1997 and Leann Rimes was set to perform a concert following the races. The 15-year-old sensation drew a large crowd despite a rather short and to the point performance.
Forster’s biggest win as a trainer remains the 2005 Longacres Mile when his 60-1 long shot No Giveaway made this huge move on the turn and ran down the leaders to win. No Giveaway made up 20-lengths in that historic run and returned a Mile record $122 on the $2 win. Forster was obviously excited for his first big win as a trainer but even more happy for the owner Herman Sarkowsky. Sarkowsky was one of the original investors and had been chasing the big prize since getting into the racing game decades prior.
Jim Hawley Former Director of Parking
Jim Hawley had the task of planning and parking thousands of cars over the years but none as crazy as opening day,
1996. The parking lot was a vast wasteland as late as the day before as crews were literally striping the lots on the 18th and 19th of June. Additionally, he had to figure out temporary parking for the employees to allow every space available and additional overflow parking at the Supermall with shuttles to and from the track.
On opening day Hawley says his crew parked more than 7,000 cars and every available space a car was squeezed into. The other huge day he anticipated correctly was the first Fireworks show on July 3rd, where again the parking lots were filled to capacity. Hawley says the bigger days following opening day were difficult but much easier due to the lessons learned from June 20, 1996.
Hawley also had similar thoughts and feelings about working with the Emerald Downs family. He says there were and are several dedicated employees. He says Joe Withee showed him how to sleep under an L-shaped desk when it made no sense to try and run home for a few hours of rest only to have to be back.
Hawley is now the business manager for Grant Forster and remains heavily involved in the racing industry.
Ron Crockett Founder and former President
Ron Crockett’s vision came to life on June 20th, 1996 and he couldn’t be happier for where that has led the industry to its current status. His biggest motivation was to save the industry not only for the fans and those who participated but even more for the thousands of people who made a living in the business.
Some of his personal highlights and honors included a stakes race named after his mother Angie which is still run today and of course his win in the 2007 Longacres Mile with his horse “The Great Face”.
Crockett also thanked the Muckleshoot Tribe for stepping in and taking over operations. Crockett worked many years stabilizing the industry and after extensive talks with the Tribe was happy to hand the baton over to them with the confidence they can take the industry yet another step forward and keep racing alive and well in Washington State.
20th Anniversary Photo Gallery