Emerald Downs gamble pays off

Ron Crockett has been called the savior of horse racing in Washington, but he's too busy to give the idea much thought.

As lead investor and president of Emerald Downs, Crockett has too many numbers to crunch, too many horses to keep track of, too many Washington Huskies athletic events to attend as a fan and major booster.

Crockett's idea of bringing horse racing back to the Puget Sound area after Longacres closed in 1992 was a huge longshot. He was told it couldn't be done, that horse racing was a dying industry, that there were too many other gambling options, that the political hurdles would be too much.

But here he is, sitting in his office with an unlit stogie in his mouth — "I chew them, a dirty habit," he said — preparing for today's opening of the 10th-anniversary season of Auburn's Emerald Downs, which turned a profit for the first time last year.

"Without him, there might not be horse racing in Washington," Ralph Vacca, general manager of the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders Association, said.

While the industry as a whole struggles, Emerald Downs' future appears bright.

"I think we're as healthy as we can possibly be in light of the competition that is out there," said Crockett, referring to casinos, lotteries and cardrooms. "We had a record handle last year and record purses."

Crockett, who turns 67 in May, gambled millions and won. He built a racetrack and sustained it. But this isn't a surprise to him. Crockett is used to gambling — and winning.

Seizing the opportunity

As a young man growing up in Renton, Crockett admired Henry Ford.

"When I started to pick a profession, I had always looked at [him] as a guy who had done something en masse, and that would play into my later life," Crockett said.

In Crockett's case it was airplanes, not automobiles. In 1988, he sold Tramco to B.F. Goodrich for a reported $100 million. From a humble start, Crockett had built the company into the largest airplane-repair company in the country.

It was all a result of seizing an opportunity and taking a chance.

After graduating from Washington in 1962 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Crockett began working at Boeing, making $137 a week.

"In the seven years I was at Boeing, I had done very well," Crockett said. "I had progressed very nicely to the point where I had reached $20,000 a year. They then sent me on some trips and I got to know airline executives and representatives that came in."

One day, in early 1970, Crockett met John Scott from South African Airways, who helped give him an idea that changed his life.

"[Scott] said, 'There's really a curious thing. Of all the components that are sent in to go into Boeing airplanes there's no company here to work on them, so they send in someone from out of town to do the repair work,' " Crockett said.

Scott, in fact, had some work that needed to be done. Seats had come in for a 747 without row numbers.

"He said, "I got a whole bag of these numbers, but what do I do with them?' " Crockett said. "On a whim, I said, 'I know a little company in town that can do something like that.' "

That "little company" didn't actually exist until Crockett quickly opened a $10 checking account in the name of Air Repair.

"I took some double-back tape and did a hole punch and did the numbers myself — and charged them 25 bucks to do it," Crockett said. "And that was the start of the [business]."

Crockett then quit Boeing, hired a typist (Wanda Shaw, now his longtime partner) and five employees. The gamble quickly paid off, and 18 years later, Crockett had made a fortune.

A passion begins

It was only fitting that Crockett developed a love for horse racing, considering his infatuation with numbers, gambling and competition. In 1974, he bought his first horse, claiming Topper Blue in a race at Longacres.

Crockett's airplane-repair business was booming in the 1970s and '80s. He also entered the commercial real-estate business, became involved in the opening of Eagle Hardware and opened a clothing store in Bellevue.

"While all this other stuff was going on, I just kept growing the stable," Crockett said. "We started going back to Kentucky and started buying yearlings. We got to the point where we got kind of decent at it."

Actually, Crockett became one of the most successful buyers in the country.

Vaudeville became his best horse. He won more than $600,000 in his career, including the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park in 1994. A picture of Vaudeville from that race hangs in Crockett's office at Emerald Downs.

Although Crockett enjoyed Vaudeville's success, they were not pleasant times for him. His dream of a racetrack was going nowhere.

The dark days

After it was announced Longacres would close in Renton, Crockett formed Northwest Racing Associates. Using $10 million of his money and another $11 million from a group of about 20 others, the plan was to build a racetrack on top of wetlands in Auburn.

"One of the reasons I wanted to build the place is my mother enjoyed the races," Crockett said.

From the beginning, Crockett's group faced opposition.

Most observers thought the state would award racing dates to a rival group that wanted to build a racetrack in Fife, Pierce County. But in April 1993, Crockett's group was awarded the task of rebuilding the state's Thoroughbred industry.

Crockett is not one to gloat, but he has a memento from those days hanging on the wall of the restroom in his office. It is a poster supporting a racetrack in Fife, proclaiming, "It's closer than you think."

As it turns out, it wasn't close, but neither was Crockett's group. The legislative hurdles to build on the wetlands were immense, and as more time elapsed without a racetrack, the opposition to Crockett increased.

"All those nasty cartoons and all those nasty articles," Crockett said. "Those were really hard days, going through all those hearings, people beating you up, saying you're a joke, but we just stayed the course.

In April 1995, after redrawing the plans three times, and agreeing to spend $1 million to maintain 56 acres of wetlands a half-mile from the track, Crockett's group received federal approval to build its racetrack.

"Obviously, putting this thing together, I took gambles," he said. "I took a lot of chances that looking back you could say were bold, but honestly, it came quite naturally to me."

A changed landscape

When Emerald Downs opened in 1996, tribal casinos accounted for 10.5 percent of the state's gambling, according to the Washington Gambling Commission. Last year, they accounted for 60.4 percent (more than $1 billion of the $1.7 billion). The cardrooms' take has increased from $15 million to $302.6 million in the same time period.

Still, that hasn't been Emerald Downs' biggest hurdle.

"Here is the key," Crockett said. "It was a $53 million projected event to build. But after four years of haranguing — and everyone was a part of it, the government, the media, the opposition, you pick it — it drove it to $83 million. And that's what's been tough to overcome from the get-go, servicing 83 instead of 53."

Still, after sustaining about $3.7 million of losses through 2004, the track made "a minimal, next-to-nothing" profit in 2005.

"It was a nice feeling to [make a profit], when you have an industry that isn't doing so great," Crockett said. "To be able to do it, was nice, and it put us in a rarified area."

With the help from the Muckleshoot Tribe, which in 2002 bought the land the track is on, daily average purses increased about 12 percent last year to $108,175. That led to bigger fields, which led to more wagering.

The Muckleshoots will continue their financial support this year, but contrary to rumors, Crockett said the tribe has given him no indication it would like to the buy the track.

Crockett would not divulge how much the Muckleshoot Tribe is contributing, but he said the daily average purses should be about $110,000.

While many states have allowed slot machines into racetracks to boost purses, Crockett believes Emerald Downs can survive without them.

"As we speak, the legislators in this state have zero inclination to put slot machines in this racetrack," Crockett said. "I respect their position since I am in a regulated industry.

"Also, I have seen across the nation, what happens to the racing portion when it becomes a casino. What happens is purses go up, and interest goes down. And I am doing the best I can to preserve racing."

Nonstop worker

Crockett said he comes to work just about every day, and when he isn't working, he is often spending time with his two young grandchildren. He is proud of his philanthropic endeavors, having given the UW about $3 million. He has also given $1.5 million to Children's Orthopedic Hospital.

Crockett is a hands-on president, involved in every aspect of Emerald Downs, yet doesn't pay himself a dime.

"I have done this for free from Day 1," Crockett said. "When I started this project it was the first time in my lifetime I ever utilized someone else's dollars. I just felt it was incumbent on me to be as thrifty as I possibly could with their dollars and not take a salary."

Still, it's a dream job for him.

"It's a vocation and an avocation at the same desk," Crockett said. "I enjoy this industry. I enjoy the people in it. I enjoy owning horses [44 at last count]."

Crockett recently saw an article that said only 20 percent of men over 65 are still working.

"I think that's crazy, he said. "I will never retire, whatever that means. If for some reason I wasn't doing this tomorrow — and I don't know what that situation would be — I would be doing something else the next day."

Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or shanson@seattletimes.com

Triple Crown schedule

May 6: Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

May 20: Preakness Stakes, Pimlico Race Course, Baltimore, Md.

June 10: Belmont Stakes, Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

Top returning jockeys
JOCKEY Wins Mounts Win% ITM% Wins Rank Mounts Win% ITM%
Kevin Krigger 126 719 17.5 48.8 196 15 1,122 17.5 49.5
Became the ninth jockey to win a title; his average winner paid just $8 last year with 53 of them paying between $3-$6.
Ricky Frazier 107 552 19.4 51.4 255 11 1,411 18.1 49.6
Racked up 19 stakes victories the past two years at the local oval; he'll try to become first to win 100 races three times.
Gallyn Mitchell 82 517 15.9 47.8 862 1 5,141 16.8 47.5
Has finished in the top five at every summer meet with two titles (1999-2000); 48 stakes wins are 23 more than runner-up.
Juan Gutierrez 78 586 13.3 42.8 338 6 2,608 13.0 40.5
Don't dismiss when he's legged up on an outsider (>10-1) as his 32 trips to the winner's circle the past 3 seasons are the most.
Debbie Hoonan 68 571 11.9 35.4 120 27 1,024 11.7 36.6
Became just the third woman to finish in the top five at a meet (Chelsea Zupan was third in 1997 and Sandi Gann fifth in 2002).
Ben Russell 67 372 18.0 49.2 446 3 2,097 21.3 54.5
Started '05 just 8 of 105 (7.6%) but then went on a big-time roll, winning 59 races (22.1%) in his final 55 days of riding.
Leslie Mawing 57 368 15.5 44.0 75 32 625 12.0 36.2
Appeared on June 24 (day 36) and won two races; his 57 wins over the final 66 days paid a nifty avg. of $14.45 (9 were over 10-1).
Navin Mangalee 40 361 11.1 36.0 59 36 541 10.9 34.6
The soft-spoken Trinidad and Tobago native doubled his win total last year; expect him to improve his win total again.
Jennifer Whitaker 37 221 16.7 42.5 230 13 1,716 13.4 41.0
Teamed up with Howard Belvoir to win 28 races; her 16.7 win percent was a season best and the average winner paid nearly $15.
Nate Chaves 17 130 13.1 38.5 341 5 2,616 13.0 37.3
Didn't win a race in final 39 days as he couldn't get over an injury; ridden at every meet with his best season being '99 (62 wins).
Kevin Radke 0 0 317 8 1,476 21.5 52.4
Hasn't ridden since a spill in April '03; only rider to win at least 140 races in two EmD seasons; won 20 races in 1st 10 days of '03.
— Gary Dougherty, Seattle Times Handicapper
Top returning trainers
TRAINER Wins Starters Win% ITM% Wins Rank Starters Win% ITM%
Tim McCanna 54 261 20.7 46.7 491 1 2,652 18.5 51.3
Has won five of the past six titles; rung up 17 stakes victories since 2001; won 13 races in the first 13 days last year.
Frank Lucarelli 53 297 17.8 43.4 396 2 2,287 17.3 46.7
No worse than second the past four years; a $20 win wager on all of his starters the past two years would have made you $1,136.
Jim Penney 49 211 23.2 49.8 322 5 1,603 20.1 49.5
Exits his best season in wins (49) and stakes (7); barn is over 24% with runners off 30 or more days and nearly 45% with favorites.
Bud Klokstad 36 179 20.1 45.8 347 4 1,647 21.1 52.7
Klokstad tops all trainers in stakes wins (42), 2-year-old stakes wins (17) and has won at least one stakes at every summer meet.
Howard Belvoir 36 197 18.3 42.6 293 6 2,045 14.3 41.1
Conditioned 11 longshot (>10-1) winners the past two seasons (29 in career) and has done quite well with debut runners.
Sharon Ross 36 248 14.5 42.3 366 3 2,042 17.9 46.3
Wait until her runners go two turns as she's led the standings in route wins eight of the 10 seasons, including the past two with 33.
Dan Markle 33 164 20.1 53.0 195 10 1,006 19.4 53.6
Reached the 30-win plateau (Halonator won 8) for the first time; he's done a super job with older maidens.
Roy Lumm 31 216 14.4 38.9 209 8 1,527 13.7 41.6
Last season was career best in terms of wins; has won at least 17 races at every summer meet — only five have pulled off that feat.
Robbie Baze 30 306 9.8 35.3 86 33 821 10.5 34.3
Baze's win total has went from 1 (2000) to 4, 8, 15, 28 and 30 last year; his 306 starters were second highest in one meet.
Grant Forster 25 116 21.6 51.7 85 34 392 21.7 52.6
Forster's lifetime win% of 21.7 is best among trainers with at least 200 starters; also leads in route races (100 starters) at 24.6%.
Doris Harwood 24 167 14.4 37.1 182 11 1,256 14.5 42.4
Does well with "price" horses early in the meet and has been exceptional with runners making their career debut.
— Gary Dougherty, Seattle Times handicapper
Emerald Downs president Ron Crockett, with one of his horses, comes to work at the racetrack just about every day — but doesn't pay himself a dime.