04/13/2012 2:48PM

Hovdey: Crockett stays positive at Emerald Downs


Depending on your artistic tastes and generational inclinations, the term Last of the Independents brings to mind either the Pretenders 1994 album that included a pitch-perfect cover of Dylan’s “Forever Young,” or a bank heist movie called “Charlie Varrick” in which Walter Matthau’s main character referred to himself by that hook.

Then there’s Ron Crockett.

As the man synonymous with Emerald Downs, located just down the highway from Seattle (aka the Emerald City), Crockett, 72, may not be the absolute last of the independent racetrack operators – at least not while Charles Cella, Corey Johnson, and a few other stubborn holdouts are still around. But Crockett is the only one doing business at a track of regional significance without an onsite revenue stream from a room full of electronic gaming devices raking in the cash.

Then again, he’s got Mount Rainier.

On Friday morning, Crockett was gearing up for his 17th opening day at Emerald Downs in the shadow of Washington’s most famous mountain, commencing a meet of 81 programs that runs through Sept. 23. Like everyone else in the game these days, Crockett is braced for the ongoing battle to maintain racing’s razor-thin hold on the attention of the public, especially in an area so rich in sports and leisure alternatives. The good news is that Emerald Downs was up 11 percent in attendance last year over a tough 2010. On the other hand, an 11 percent gain is a hard act to follow.

“I have every reason to believe we can up our attendance figure again this year,” Crockett said. “My main concern, like so many other tracks, will be field size and how that impacts handle. But people come here and ask where all the young people in our crowd are coming from. It’s something we’ve consciously cultivated from the beginning. The kids who come to Emerald Downs with their families to have a picnic and watch these magnificent animals in action, many of them become fans for life.”

The story of the track is pretty simple. Were there no Emerald Downs these last 16 years, there would be no Thoroughbred breeding industry in the Northwest. End of tale. When old Longacres Racetrack was bought and razed by Boeing in 1992, after 57 years of operation, native son Crockett stepped in with a promise to build a new track and run it until the day he died. Based on that promise, Washington’s owners and breeders hung tough and were rewarded with the opening of Emerald Downs on June 20, 1996.

“When it’s all said and done, the fact that we’ve been able to save this industry and the jobs for these people is the most rewarding thing of all,” Crockett said. “There’s a huge number of people who were with us on opening day in 1996 still with us today.”

Unlike many of the “have nots” among racetracks without a casino revenue source, there is no anxiety about slot machines keeping Crockett and his local industry constituents awake nights. More than 40 Native American casinos in Washington state have the game locked down legislatively, with annual revenues exceeding $1.7 billion. No one else need apply.

This has not prevented Crockett from establishing a strong relationship with the nearby Muckleshoot tribe, which in 2002 purchased the land upon which Emerald Downs sits.

“Years ago, you’d drive along the tribal lands on the Renton-Auburn-Enumclaw Highway and you’d see ramshackle houses, all kinds of alcohol and drug problems, and unbelievable poverty,” Crockett said “With their success, they’ve built a 500-person school, new housing, a hospital. Any kid can go to college, no charge. They’ve done an amazing job of making the lives of 2,500 people first class.”

In 2004, Crockett took a shot at involving the local tribe in the fortunes of Emerald Downs. Now, in an agreement renewed annually, the Muckleshoots supplement Emerald Downs purses by about 15 percent, according to Crockett.

“They care about jobs,” Crockett said. “And we try to be good neighbors and good friends.”

Crockett also breeds and races Thoroughbreds, among them the accomplished grass horse Vaudeville and the 2007 Longacres Mile winner The Great Face, although he is resting his current hopes primarily on untried Washington 2-year-olds. He was able to get into the horse business by founding the commercial aircraft maintenance and repair company Tramco, then selling it to B.F. Goodrich in 1988. In addition, he’s done just fine in real estate and development investments, most of which are now managed by his daughter, Carrie, while Crockett spends considerable time and treasure supporting a variety of philanthropic endeavors for the University of Washington.

For the next several months, though, Crockett will immerse himself in the fortunes of his track. Emerald Downs may be geographically remote compared to the traditional centers of racing action in Kentucky, Southern California, and the Mid-Atlantic states. In the modern business model, however, the Washington track relies on the same lifeline of inter-track and advanced deposit wagering that drives the economics of every racing operation, whether in terms of selling its own product or buying signals from a variety of sources.

“Very seldom in my life have I been helpless,” Crockett said. “But the most obnoxious thing a track like ours is facing right now – something I have no recourse to change – is the host fees charged by the Magnas and the Churchills and what they charge for their signals. There’s no standard, no David Stern or Roger Goodell to tell them what they can and can’t do.

“Four or five years ago, fancy Ron Crockett said no to an increase of a couple percent for the Aqueduct signal,” he went on. “I told my people they would blink first. Two weeks passed and here comes the Aqueduct signal – at the higher rate. What am I going to do?”

Not much, other than hunker down and hope Emrald Downs can continue to position itself as a valuable local attraction that also offers a gambling product in a time zone and a price range that fits a national betting niche.

“Even though this is a very tough business, I still enjoy driving down here every day,” Crockett said. “I’ve not gotten tired of it, 17 opening days later.”