Nearly 30 years ago, Ron Crockett made a promise.
Crockett led a group of investors that wanted to build a racetrack in Auburn after Longacres in Renton closed in 1992. Crockett vowed to the late Barbara Shinpoch, then head of the Washington Horse Racing Commission, that if he were granted a license to race, in his lifetime he would keep the horse-racing industry going in the state.
Indeed he has.
When Crockett, 82, comes to work Sunday in his office on the sixth floor of Emerald Downs, with a great view of the racetrack and Mount Rainier in the distance, it will be 25 years to the date from when the track opened.
It will be a day of memories — and hope — at the track he spearheaded, then ran for nearly two decades.
Keeping that promise hasn’t always been easy. Crockett’s group endured a long, arduous and sometimes nasty process to get the racetrack built and opened.
The battle had only started. There was the sudden proliferation of other ways to wager — tribal casinos and card rooms to start. Then there was a national decline in the horse racing industry, and more recently, a pandemic.
Despite the challenges, racing remains very much alive at Emerald Downs, which looks about as clean and sparkling as it did the day it opened.
Crockett sold the racetrack in 2014 to the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe but continues to work there as a consultant. Meanwhile, Emerald Downs has become part of the fabric of the area.
And 25 years from now? Will another milestone be celebrated at Emerald Downs?
“Of course,” said Phil Ziegler, whom the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe hired to replace Crockett as president. “Emerald Downs is more popular with bettors around the country than ever, and one thing we always have going for us is fans, and it’s great to have fans back.”
If you judge Emerald Downs as a moneymaking business venture, it has not been a great success, but Crockett never saw the racetrack in those terms.
He was tasked with saving the horse racing industry in the state. And when he looks out Sunday and sees horses galloping down the stretch and fans cheering, he will feel good about what he sees.
“The bottom line is there was horse racing last night in this state,” Crockett said on a recent Thursday. “What was different about this project is that it was not one of many. It wasn’t another grocery or another gas station. It was an only. The responsibility to save the industry became the driving force.”
The man for the job
Crockett, who exudes confidence and has a personality that fills up a room, was an engineer at Boeing until 1970 when he opened an airplane repair business with $10 in its checking account.
In 1988, he sold Tramco to B.F. Goodrich for a reported $100 million after it had become the largest airplane-repair company in the country.
Crockett was involved with horse racing as an owner and breeder, and when Longacres was sold to Boeing in 1990, he was approached by others in the horse racing business.
“Herman Sarkowsky and Dave Heerensperger were two of them who said, ‘We have to save this industry,’” Crockett said. “I had sold my company in 1988, so they knew I had the financial wherewithal, and hopefully the ability. I kind of became the choice for that reason.”
Little did he know how hard the journey would be.
Crockett formed Northwest Racing Associates, and using $10 million of his money and another $11 million from a group of about 30 others, the plan was to build a racetrack on top of wetlands in Auburn.
From the beginning, Crockett’s group faced opposition. Many thought a rival group that wanted to build a racetrack in Fife, near Tacoma, was a better option.
“It got nasty,” Crockett said, while pulling out some negative articles he kept. “’An ego as large as his wallet. Crockett is charming one minute, ruthless the next.’ … I had to blank my mind from the nasty stuff that was said.”
In April 1993, the state racing commission picked Crockett’s group, but there were many legislative hurdles still to overcome before racetrack could be built.
Finally, in April 1995, after redrawing plans three times, and agreeing to a $1 million mitigation plan to maintain 56 acres of wetlands a half-mile from the track, Crockett’s group received federal approval to build Emerald Downs.
The racetrack, finished a year later at price of $83 million — $30 million more than originally planned — doesn’t look 25. Crockett takes care of what he owns — like the 1998 Toyota 4Runner he still drives.
It has more than 407,000 miles on it.
“I’m shooting for 500,000,” Crockett said. “I think it may outlast me.”
Jack Hodge, Crockett’s second in charge who remains vice president, shares Crockett’s view when it comes to tidiness.
“They’re real neat freaks,” said Joe Withee, who has been Emerald Downs’ director of publicity and broadcasting since it opened. “They make sure things are clean and 25 years later, it looks great. There was always enough staff to get things done, and maybe that’s why we weren’t bottom-line successful every year. But we put on a good face to the public.”
One look at the Emerald Downs floor — and the absence of losing wagering tickets — and it’s obvious cleanliness is a priority.
“Go to any racetrack in America and people throw (losing tickets) on the floor and they stay there until the next morning when someone cleans them up,” Crockett said. “We have people walking around sweeping them into garbage cans all day long. Tickets on the floor? No, thank you. I don’t throw paper on the floor at my home.”
Said longtime trainer Howard Belvoir, who has won three Longacres Mile races at Emerald Downs and also was successful at Longacres: “Ron built a great facility. Twenty-five years later, you just can’t find a better track.”
An era begins
A crowd of 18,423 attended the first day of racing at Emerald Downs on June 20, 1996. Withee remembers that day vividly.
“The audio didn’t really work at all,” Withee said. “You couldn’t hear (announcer) Robert Geller’s calls that well if you were out in the crowd. Ann Wilson (of Heart) sang the national anthem in the winner’s circle and her mic didn’t work. That was unfortunate for sure.”
The glitches were soon corrected.
The crowds predictably dropped from that first day, but unlike most racetracks in the country, which were suffering big drops in attendance, Emerald Downs’ attendance held steady year after year.
“A lot of people enjoy coming out here, especially with the way we built it, with a park area for the kids and you can bring your picnic blanket and enjoy yourself on a sunny day,” Crockett said. “We provided a venue where people would enjoy watching.”
For local horsemen, the track meant survival.
“Ron was a savior, you can say that,” Belvoir said. “It kept the Northwest going with racing.”
Some of the best jockeys and trainers in the world have won races at Emerald Downs in the past 25 years. There have been many great horses, and many great races.
“I am very aware, now that I am on the other side of it, that it was a very well-run track — extremely well run,” said Geller, who announced for 19 years at Emerald Downs before moving to Woodbine, the biggest track in Canada. “I think it’s a gem.”
Still, the track was not successful financially. In the 10th season, it turned a small profit for the first time. That did not become the norm.
In November 2014, Northwest Racing Associates reached a deal to sell Emerald Downs to the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, which already owned the land the racetrack was on.
Crockett, who had worked full-time as president since the track’s opening while never taking a salary, said he got no money when the track was sold.
“What happened, and it’s no secret, is the Muckleshoots took over the mortgage,” Crockett said. “People really got zero return on their investment, including myself. There was never a penny that went back to me or the other investors. And never a complaint one time, because they also realized they were saving an industry. It was a rare bunch of people.”
The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe had been supportive of Emerald Downs for years before buying it.
In 2004, Crockett went to the tribe, asking if it would supplement race purses. It agreed to more than $1 million. The contributions continued year after year.
“They were the obvious people to take over,” Crockett said. “They are very, very solid people and they care about the industry. They enhanced the purses every single year, without necessarily a return to them. It’s not like they enhanced the purses and people went to the casino. They wanted racing to succeed and they ended up being the owners.”
After purchasing the racetrack, the tribe immediately increased race purses, upgraded TVs at the track and put in a big infield video screen. Some of the special events that were started, such as corgi and ostrich races, and Indian relay races, have been extremely popular.
“The addition of Phil (Ziegler) was very strong in the area of his creativity for events and such,” Crockett said. “Corgi races and stuff like that is a different dimension from what we had done. It changed things a bit, to the positive. Being an engineer, I didn’t necessarily have that as a skill set.”
Good on his word
Crockett and Ziegler confer about many different matters, and Ziegler said Crockett was particularly helpful in dealing with the state regarding COVID-19 protocols in the past year.
“You can call him up day and night, and his passion for this industry is second to none,” Ziegler said.
But Crockett, who said he works about three days a week at the racetrack, has a lot more than horse racing in his life these days, starting with his longtime philanthropic endeavors and keeping up with his three grandchildren.
Crockett said he has funded 380 one-year scholarships to students at the University of Washington, his alma mater, and also is a significant contributor to Seattle Children’s hospital.
“(Wife) Wanda and I live in a very fine world, right now,” Crockett said. “We are healthy and have a wonderful extended family to look after. Life is great. We look after people the best we can.”
And the racetrack he helped build and run?
“You can count on the industry remaining here because of (the Muckleshoot Tribe),” Crockett said.
That’s still a promise.
“When it’s all over, on my next-to-last day, the feeling will generally be that we did our best — along with the investors and the wonderful employees that we had — in saving an industry that would have been gone.”