Horse racing can be all-consuming. For most at Emerald Downs it’s not just a job. It’s their life.
AUBURN — The agony of defeat is the norm.
Severe injury is a constant threat.
And when things seemingly couldn’t be better, heartbreak can come suddenly and inexplicably.
Welcome to life in the horse-racing business, where winning 20 percent of the time is considered great.
But despite the odds against success, and for most, the constant threat to their physical and emotional health, folks at Emerald Downs — from the jockeys to the horseshoer to the woman running the track café — have a passion that isn’t seen in most lines of work.
For many, it’s the chance to hit it big that keeps them going. They dream of the one great horse that will bring fame and fortune.
Then there is the love of horses. It’s why most people were drawn to racing, and they enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded people.
One thing is certain: Once you’re in this business, you’re usually hooked for life. The passion, the lifestyle, the routine and the thrill of victory grab you and never let go.
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“It’s the horses … and we treat them like royalty,” said Dennis Snowden, assistant trainer for Frank Lucarelli, on why he got into the business. “I was at the UW, and I was six weeks from graduating with a teacher’s certificate, and I was galloping horses in the morning and I had to make a decision.”
Snowden, 64, isn’t second-guessing his choice: “They get in your blood, and you just can’t get rid of it. They are great to be around.”
That’s why, at 93, Don Munger sits in his small, cluttered office at Emerald Downs, peering through a large magnifying glass to work out training schedules for the 18 horses he trains in anticipation of the track’s season opener Saturday.
It’s why Jody Peetz, who owned O B Harbor, Emerald Downs’ biggest star last year, stays in the game even though the horse died suddenly last fall, leaving her so heartbroken she couldn’t tell anyone.
“You just want to get into a fetal position,” she said.
And it’s why Ron Crockett, who built the racetrack and was Emerald Downs’ president for nearly two decades, said, “I would do it all over again,” despite it being a financial loss.
The sport can be all-consuming. For most it’s not just a job. It’s their life.
Many winters ago, trainer Roy Lumm left the sport to work in a car shop. Then spring came, and he felt the pull of the track.
“I said, ‘What am I doing here? I have to get back to the track.’ And here I am,” said Lumm, 79, who transitioned to training after decades as a jockey.
“I got another job before and made more money … but I came back,” trainer Martin Pimentel said. “Why? Because of the horses. No matter how long you take off, you come back; that’s how it is.”
A life’s work
Munger is one of three trainers at Emerald Downs in their 90s. His work gets him out of bed and keeps him moving. And, he says, keeps him living.
His eyesight is failing, he carries oxygen with him, and he no longer drives.
“It’s tempting to stay in bed, but I get up at 5 every morning, and I come down here,” said Munger, whose daughter drives him to the track. “And that’s what keeps me going, these horses. Because you can’t put them in a garage or a barn and say, ‘See you next week.’ They have to be taken care of.”
Not that Munger — who fought on Iwo Jima in World War II — ever saw training as work. He certainly didn’t do it for the money. One tough season at Longacres in Renton, he finished $40,000 in the hole.
“I used to see guys who didn’t like their work and I said, ‘Heck, I like my work and I’m going to stick with it as long as I can,’ ” he said.
Even at 93, Munger is still dreaming.
“You’re always going to come up with the good one — next year,” he said.
Junior Coffey, 75, became a trainer after starring as a running back at the University of Washington, then playing from 1965-71 in the NFL.
He said training a winner is more difficult than scoring a touchdown, and he likes that, unlike in football, even the little guy has a shot to make it big.
Coffey marvels at how big syndicates can spend millions on a regally bred yearling that ends up doing nothing, and a horse that sells relatively cheap can make millions.
“People spend a lot of money, and sometimes it works out, but most the times it doesn’t,” said Coffey, who usually ranks among Emerald Downs’ top trainers in winning percentage. “Another guy can pay $10,000, and boom. That could be me.”
As Crockett says, “I can buy the best car, the best suit and the best house, but you can’t necessarily buy a winner.”
The sport’s big-time trainers have stables at multiple tracks and a slew of assistants. But for every one of them, there are several just trying to make enough money to survive.
Terry Gillihan, 60, has been a respected trainer for decades, but when his business took a downturn, he took a second job as a milkman to help support his kids. Quitting training is something he never seriously considered.
He gets too much joy from watching horses develop, and the big role he plays in it.
“It’s like being a football coach, when you see your players who weren’t so good get better,” Gillihan said. “That’s the same as it is with a horse. You start with them at 2 years old, and you see them change and figure things out. That’s the rewarding part when you see them develop into nice horses. There is a ton of disappointment — bad luck and all that kind of stuff — but the rewarding part makes it worthwhile.”
A trainer’s labor of love almost always comes with a physical price.
Walk around the backstretch at the track, and it seems everyone has a limp. They have stories of being kicked, bit and stomped on by those they tend to.
“Horses are like people,” Pimentel said. “They get in a bad mood, and that’s when they get you. They’ll bite me like a bug — one time my whole arm got purple.”
Lumm can beat that. He broke a femur when he was kicked. But in the end, the thrill of victory and the love of horses trumps the hardship.
“You love them all like your child,” Pimentel said. “And when you win, it’s like somebody just picks you up. It’s very nice, and it makes you hyper the whole rest of the day.”
Agony and ecstasy
Peetz, 63, said she sometimes wonders why she continues owning horses after losing O B Harbor last year, but that thought doesn’t last long.
A friend took her to Emerald Downs in 1997. She had always loved horses, and going to the track that day became a life-changing event.
“I decided, ‘I am going to get a racehorse. This is what I was meant to be doing,’ ” she said. “I found my niche in life, and I love having people around you as passionate as you are.”
Peetz named her stable “One Horse Will Do” even though she owns several.
“That’s because it will take just one horse to make a million, and I am still waiting,” Peetz said.
It seemed her wait could be over with O B Harbor, who Peetz purchased for $18,500.
Peetz and trainer Chris Stenslie were cautious with him as a 2- and 3-year-old, racing him lightly. He then exploded onto the scene last year at Emerald Downs. He won three stakes races in spectacular fashion, then finished third as the 6-5 favorite in the $200,000 Longacres Mile, the Northwest’s premier race.
This season should have been O B Harbor’s best, as a horse often peaks at 5. The plan was to race here this summer, then take him to the big races in Southern California.
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But O B Harbor was found dead in his stable at Yakima in October. He had a twisted intestine. Nothing could have been done to save the horse. Peetz takes solace in the fact that he showed no signs of distress and likely didn’t suffer.
But it was a debilitating blow. So was losing another horse to colic last May.
“It’s just horrible,” she said, fighting tears. “You wonder, ‘Why do I keep doing this?’ But it’s such a passion. The thrill of victory is so great, and it’s such a highlight when you bring a horse up and they do well.”
A tragic turn
Lumm said you have to get used to the agony of defeat.
But how do you get used to something that occurred July 18 in the Emerald Express Stakes?
The Chilli Man, trained by Monique Snowden, entered the race as perhaps the most promising 2-year-old in Emerald Downs history after winning his debut by 11½ lengths June 26. His speed figure at the time was the fourth-highest recorded by a North American 2-year-old.
The word got out nationally, and suitors emerged. A deal was arranged to sell the horse after the Emerald Express, reportedly for $325,000.
But then the unthinkable happened. The Chilli Man broke poorly at the start of the race, then took a bad step in the far turn. He suffered a bilateral sesamoid fracture and had to be euthanized.
Emerald Downs season
Opening day: Saturday, with the first race at 5 p.m. A fireworks show is scheduled after the races.
Racing season: April 8 through Sept. 17. Live races are generally Fridays through Sunday, except for holiday weeks. The first Friday night of racing is April 21 and Friday nght racing ends Sept. 1.
Highlight: The $200,000 Grade III Longacres Mile is Aug. 13.
What’s new: A clubhouse casino located on the fifth floor, with several different table games, a new bar and lounge, plus a state-of-the-art simulcast area and the Quick Pix cafe.
Snowden had a small but successful stable, and she became extremely close to her horses. She oozed passion for the horses she trained.
And later that day, Snowden committed suicide at age 37, jumping off the Kummer Bridge over the Green River between Auburn and Enumclaw, a fall of about 160 feet.
“She was suffering from depression, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Dennis Snowden, her husband. “She had gone through a lot after losing her mother (in 2011), and she had changed quite a bit. She put everything into the horses. … She lived in the barn. What happened, that was very devastating to her.”
A few weeks before her suicide, just after The Chilli Man’s debut win, Snowden posted this telling quote from an unknown author on her Facebook page.
“This is not a hobby. It’s late nights and early mornings. It’s struggles and triumphs, it pushes your boundaries and tests your abilities every day. One moment it exposes your weaknesses only to let you shine your brightest in the next. It is not for everyone, actually it’s hardly for anyone. But in that one moment when it all comes together, when you and your horse are one, that moment is worth all the hard work and sacrifice. It is necessary as breath, as the blood in your veins. No, this is not a hobby, it is a way of life.”
“The ultimate high”
Joe Steiner wishes he could share the feeling a jockey gets when he wins.
“It’s the ultimate high,” he said. “You’re trying your hardest, and your horse is giving everything it has — they want to win just as bad as you. And when it all comes together for the team — the jockey, the trainer, the groom, the exercise rider — and you are rewarded with the win, it’s priceless.”
Steiner, 52, grew up in Renton in a horse-racing family. His parents run the Quarter Chute Café at Emerald Downs; his grandfather was a jockey, as was his uncle.
Steiner moved to Southern California while in high school and quickly made a name for himself as an 18-year-old apprentice jockey. But the sport, as it does to most jockeys, took its toll, including 32 broken bones in his career.
One of those was his neck, an injury that appeared to end his career in 2005. He didn’t ride for years. He tried other things, including real estate, but it just wasn’t him.
“I was lost,” he said. “I didn’t know who I was. It was like I lost my identity.”
In 2011, he returned to riding with “six screws and plates and a spacer” in his neck. In 2015, he moved back to Washington and began riding at Emerald Downs, where he notched the 1,000th victory of his career.
Steiner was riding the The Chilli Man when he dominated in his debut, and he was riding the horse when he broke down. After news of Snowden’s death, Steiner promptly retired.
“A horse breaking down would not make me retire,” he said. “But what happened, with Monique’s death, it really affected me. It hit home, in my heart, all the circumstances surrounding it. It just felt right to retire. All the signs were there. I just needed to pay attention to them.”
Steiner has moved to Lexington, Ky., with his family, and is working as a performance coach for a couple of jockeys. He is certain he will be in the horse-racing industry for life.
“I’ve had a lot of rewarding times, and a lot of tough times, but I wouldn’t trade places with anyone,” he said.
The word “retire” is not in the vocabulary of Vicky Baze, one of the greatest female jockeys of all time, and a member of the Washington Horse Racing Hall of Fame. She has been off for long periods with injuries, some career-threatening, but always has returned.
Her husband, Gary Baze, is one of the greatest riders in state history and won a record five Longacres Miles. He is a steward at Emerald Downs, and Vicki, 52, cannot race here because of the potential conflict of interest.
She has been exercising horses up until this week, when by rule she has to stop. But you will still see her around the track, because it’s such a part of who she is.
“For me, there is no shelf life or retirement,” she said. “I plan on being on the track until the day I croak.”
And racing again?
“I heard Gary’s Uncle Joe say, ‘Never sell your tack,’ ” she said of her riding gear. “To this day, Gary still has his tack, and I’ve still got mine. It’s like a horse. You turn a horse out for a while — and then they come back. They’re not done, they’re just on sabbatical.”
He was a shoe-in
In 1992, Jack Hood figured his back could take 10 more years of work as a farrier.
But 25 years later, Hood is still putting on horse shoes for some of the top trainers at Emerald Downs. He has felt the pull of the sport since exercising horses at Longacres as a boy. He got his jockey’s license at 18, and rode at some small tracks for a couple of years until he got too big.
He then worked at Boeing for a while, but he still owned horses. His wife at the time got tired of him complaining about the shoeing of his horses. So one day she bought $156 worth of tools and told him she never wanted to hear him complain again.
A farrier was born.
He has had nails stomped into him, toes broken, and once his whole foot. He had a rotator cuff fixed, and the other remains torn. It’s the hands that suffer the most, he said. Still, he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I’ve always loved horses, and I’ve been really lucky,” said Hood, 61. “I’d rather deal with horses than people.”
His passion for the animals and the sport is no less than a trainer’s or jockey’s.
“If you are in any part of it, you’re in the whole thing,” he said.
Vince Bruun, media-relations director at Emerald Downs, affectionately calls Sally Steiner “the den mother.”
She and husband Joe Sr. own and operate the Quarter Chute Café, located where the horses enter the track. For riders and their agents, trainers and owners, and the many grooms who live on the backside, it’s more than a place to get coffee and eat.
It’s a place to meet, talk and play a game of pool. It’s the hub of the complex, and no one knows more about what’s going on at the racetrack than Sally Steiner. If you’re a new jockey coming in for the first time, she’ll give you a free cup of coffee and you’ll never be a stranger again.
Sally’s father was a jockey who won his first race at Longacres in 1934. She grew up at the racetrack, and all four of her kids have worked in the business.
At 71, Sally has pondered quitting, but she can’t do it. She loves being at the center of her neighborhood and seeing everyone.
“These are the people that I’ve grown up with, and my heart is here,” Steiner said. “We celebrate together, we cry together, and we pray together.”
And Steiner can’t imagine not being part of it all.
“I really can’t,” she said. “I mean, every year it’s like … I’m 71 now. Are you sure you want to go back? But the feeling of the love and everything else that goes with it, I can’t imagine staying home and not being part of it.”
Crockett marvels at how horse owners from Bellevue will fight traffic on I-405, come watch their horse work out for 48 seconds, then make the long trek back home. But he gets it. He was bitten by the sport long ago.
As an 18-year-old, he would toss a football behind the Longacres grandstand with a friend who had a job parking cars there. One day they got a tip from a trainer, who said if the track was muddy they should bet on his horse, Stuckup.
Not long after that, Stuckup ran on a rainy day, so Crockett and his buddy cobbled together $17, betting all of it to win on the horse, which won. Crockett doesn’t remember the payout, but the rest of the details are quite vivid.
Crockett, 77, claimed his first horse in 1974 and at times has owned up to 60.
“It’s the way you can be involved in a sport and always have the hope of reaching the pinnacle,” he said. “Everyone believes they’ve got a Derby horse; they really believe that in their hearts.”
Hope. It’s eternal in this sport, and it mutes the disappointment.
“When you walk in and put that two bucks down, you don’t say, ‘I don’t think this is going to be a winner,’ ” Crockett said. “It’s, ‘I think this will be a good one. ’ ”