03/22/2007 11:00PM

Californians can look north


ARCADIA, Calif. - Ron Crockett read the news that Bay Meadows would be closing at the end of 2007 and sighed, thinking once again that such a fate could have befallen Emerald Downs at almost any time during its first, tenuous decade of operation.

It was Crockett who lead the resurrection of racing in the Pacific Northwest after Boeing bought historic Longacres in 1990 and almost immediately turned it into an aircraft plant. After four years without significant Seattle-area sport, Crockett and Northwest Racing Enterprises opened Emerald Downs in 1996, and racing was back.

At some point, Bay Meadows needed a Ron Crockett. Instead, the floundering Northern California racing circuit got the Bay Meadows Land Co., whose true business is real estate development backed by pension fund investments, a far cry from Thoroughbreds. It's okay to feel blue that such an historic track will be closed and plowed under, but if anyone is surprised, they haven't been reading the very large writing on the wall.

Bay Meadows Land Co. was demanding either slot machines or large state licensing concessions to keep the track alive. The company also was balking at the installation of a synthetic main-track surface, as mandated by the California Horse Racing Board. When the board refuse to give the land company a waiver, that was it. Game over.

Reached in his Emerald Downs office, less than a month before the 2007 meet is scheduled to commence on April 20, Crockett referred to the Bay Meadows announcement as "a crying shame," citing the situation as an example of the unfortunate reliance on other forms of gaming to keep horse racing afloat.

Crockett did concede, however, that a healthy Emerald Downs might serve as a life raft for displaced horsemen seeking a viable spring and summer home, at least while the chaos in the California circuit shakes out.

"We've had some Northern California people showing interest in recent years," Crockett said. "And now I'm sure we'll have more. Who knows? We might have to build a couple more barns. That would be a terrible problem."

Crockett and his fellow Northwest horsemen have had to deal with such a dramatically shrinking share of Washington's gambling action that racing was on the verge of insignificance in the shadow of local card rooms, an aggressively marketed state lottery, and Native American casinos.

"Horse racing represents 2 percent of gambling in the state right now," Crockett noted. "I can remember when the figure was 65 percent back in the old days, and not all that long ago, when the only competition was from a state lottery that was just a couple of pull-tabs."

The Emerald Downs response has been to maximize every revenue possibility for their parimutuel product. Applying steady pressure to the legislature, the racing industry over the past 10 years has been allowed to enact what has become the nuts and bolts of the business, including the export of live signals, the year-round import of simulcasts, and telephone and online betting.

"Everything I could possibly do is done," Crockett said. "Horsemen keep looking for their slot machines, but that just was never in the cards."

Another key to the current stability of Emerald Downs was the sale of its property to the Muckleshoot tribe, operators of a highly successful nearby casino. The Muckleshoots in turn make a direct contribution to the Emerald Downs purse structure.

"Emerald wouldn't be the same without them," Crockett said. "They've been great partners. They put another purse supplement in for this season, and they're more than happy to do it."

The pressure for California racing to come to similar terms with its

casino-operating tribes is just as great, especially now that Bay Meadows can be called the first California casualty in the battle between corporate and Native American interests. Crockett also mourns the loss of Bay Meadows as an owner who raced his horses there often.

One of the best was Carrie Can, a daughter of Saratoga Six, who made 28 of her 40 lifetime starts for Crockett at Bay Meadows, winning three minor stakes and finishing second in the Bay Meadows Dash.

On the evening of March 31, Crockett will be in Dubai to watch Carrie Can's 6-year-old son Harvard Avenue compete on the Dubai World Cup program in the $2 million Golden Shaheen, a 1,200-meter straightaway that will also feature U.S. sprint champ Thor's Echo, who now races for the host Maktoum family.

A son of Met Mile winner You and I, Harvard Avenue began his career at Emerald Downs as a 2-year-old stakes winner. At 3, Crockett sent him to the Doug O'Neill stable in Southern California and flirted briefly with Kentucky Derby dreams.

They didn't pan out, but Harvard Avenue has gone on to be a solid hard-knocker, winning races like the 2005 Potrero Grande Handicap and the 2007 El Conejo Handicap. His best performance may have come at the end of his 3-year-old season, when he was beaten just a half-length by Rock Hard Ten and Lava Man in the 2004 Malibu Stakes.

"We'll give it a go," Crockett said of Dubai. "One thing about him, he always goes wide, so we won't have to worry about that in a race without any turns."