With the track now being run by the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Ziegler’s main focus is finding the correct balance to keep fans and horsemen happy as Saturday’s opening day of racing approaches.
If the conversation is about horse racing, his management team or the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Phil Ziegler, the new president of Emerald Downs LLC, has a lot to say.
Ask him to talk about himself, and he deftly steers the conversation elsewhere.
Of course, there is a lot to talk about these days. The Auburn track opens its 20th season Saturday with a new owner after Ron Crockett, the track’s founder and president of Northwest Racing Associates, sold it to the tribe, Ziegler’s employer.
Ziegler is not a reluctant leader, he would just rather shy away from the spotlight.
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“I get that I am the new person, but the rest of the executive management team has been here for years, and even Ron Crockett is still here as a consultant. He’s still going to be an integral part of this operation.”
For fans, the most noticeable difference early in the season could be field sizes. That has been the biggest issue at Emerald Downs, but the number of horses at the track is substantially up this season. That increase is no doubt a result of a 20 percent increase in purses that the Muckleshoot Tribe announced this year along with incentives to ship in new horses and lower expenses for owners.
“The biggest challenge is horse population and breeding, and we’re trying to get things going in the right direction,” Ziegler said. “Because no matter what you do, it’s about the racing, that’s the show you’re putting on. Having big fields, that’s the excitement of it. Fans also come for the food and the fun and all the promotions we do — but it’s about the horse racing.”
Ziegler, 51, grew up in New York and developed a love for the sport by attending big racing days at Belmont Park with his father.
His love for the Northwest began in 1995, when he became marketing director for the new Muckleshoot Casino. He stayed for 10 years before becoming marketing director and assistant general manager at the newly opened racetrack at Zia Park in New Mexico.
Ziegler spent the past 7½ years as the director of marketing at Coushatta Casino Resort in Louisiana. He was happy in that post but could not resist an opportunity to come back to the Northwest.
“Look at this, it’s beautiful,” Ziegler said on a recent mild spring day. “Sunny and 70 degrees, right? The summers here are awesome. I love living in Seattle and this region, so it was very intriguing to come back, and I loved working with the tribe. Because I worked for the Muckleshoot Tribe for 10 years, to come back and be involved in this project is special.”
Ziegler said the tribe’s commitment to horse racing made the job even more enticing.
“The tribe has given almost $12 million in purse enhancements over the years, and that started even before they became the track’s landlord,” Ziegler said. “The tribe understands it’s an important industry to the local economy, and I think everybody’s excited at the prospects now that the tribe — after being the land owner all these years — is all of a sudden the operator of the track.”
Emerald Downs opened in 1996, four years after Longacres in Renton had closed after opening in 1933. The Muckleshoots bought the land Emerald Downs sits on in 2004.
Though attendance has gone up at Emerald Downs recently, the sport has struggled nationally for years. Tracks with gaming machines have done the best, as proceeds from the machines go into purses at those tracks.
And bigger purses mean more horses.
Ziegler, however, said there are no plans to install slot machines at Emerald Downs. In fact, it’s not even an option because, unlike a tribal casino, the racetrack property is not tribal trust land. The track is looking, however, into opening a card room.
A very visible change planned for the summer is the installation of an infield video screen that will be about 24 by 40 feet.
“One thing we hear from the fans is that when you’re downstairs it’s tough to see the race if it’s a mile race, so that’s why we’re doing the big screen,” he said.
It also could make concerts and other events more viable during the offseason, something else Ziegler is exploring.
But his main focus is finding the correct balance to keep fans and horsemen happy. Ziegler wants to continue to enhance the experience for everyone. On that topic, he can hardly quit talking.
“This is still a great place for people to come, and it’s almost like a county fair out here every day,” Ziegler said. “On a beautiful day, there is nothing better than this place. It’s one of the nicest tracks in the country, with Mount Rainier and the park area where families with children congregate and the beautiful paddock.
“This place has been kept up wonderfully over the first 20 years. You’d walk in here and think it opened last year. It’s affordable for families, and we have so many promotions and activities during the year. This is a fun place to come. We want to give the family that comes out two to three times a year a reason to come out five to seven times. That’s what we are trying to do.”