08/13/2004 12:00AM

Proof that times are a changin'


AUBURN, Wash. - Emerald Downs and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe began as adversaries, with the Muckleshoots opposing the construction of the track just a few miles from its casino in 1996 and Emerald opposing the Muckleshoots' plans to buy and operate Spokane's Playfair Race Course a few years later.

For those who remember those rancorous times, it was disconcerting to see Muckleshoot Tribal Chair John Daniels Jr. and Emerald president Ron Crockett holding a joint news conference on Thursday to announce a sort of partnership between the two groups.

"Things change in life," said Crockett. "I very much like John Daniels. And I very much appreciate what the Muckleshoot tribe is doing for our industry."

What the Muckleshoots are doing is donating $1.6 million to the Emerald Downs purse account, which will allow the track to increase daily purse distribution by about 15 percent to $104,000 per day for the final 20 days of the current meeting. In addition, the track will increase the length of its 2005 meeting to 101 days of racing, 11 days more than this year, while boosting daily purse distribution to $106,000.

What the tribe is getting in return didn't sound like much. There was talk of a cross-marketing partnership, including title sponsorship of the Washington Cup Classic, which will be known as the Muckleshoot Washington Cup Classic. There was also mention of a new school for grooms to train tribal members who might be interested in beginning a career in the racing business, and there was less specific talk of a political alliance that might be formed for matters of mutual concern.

Daniels said that a prime motivation for the tribe's action had to do with its purchase in 2002 of the land upon which Emerald Downs sits. The track now makes payments for its 60-year lease on the land to the Muckleshoots, and the tribe wants to make sure it can continue to do so.

"We have a $70-plus-million investment to protect," he said. "It is in our best interest to try to enhance the track's business and to ensure its success."

After the tribe bought the Emerald Downs property, speculation was rampant that it would eventually purchase the track as well. Daniels did little to discourage such speculation at Thursday's news conference. He referred to the possibility of the tribe eventually taking over the track during the conference, then elaborated afterward.

"We could take over the track right now if we wanted, but we're not prepared to do that," he said. "We don't have a timetable to do that."

Asked if he had a guarantee that the Emerald Downs investors would sell the track to the tribe, he said he did not.

"But I have a feeling they would," he added.

Crockett, who is the track's major investor, did not disagree.

"We built this track to sustain an industry," he said. "However it is sustained is fine with me. If, as a logical progression, at some point in time it is better for the industry for somebody else to run the track, then so be it. If they can do more for the industry, just because of their assets, then that's what should happen. I'm amenable."

Emerald unlikely to get slots

The notion that Emerald Downs will some day have slot machines, an idea much cherished by horsemen, took a beating on Thursday.

One scenario by which slots could come to the track is through the passage of Initiative 892, which would permit non-tribal establishments in Washington to have the same total number of slot machines as tribal casinos. That scenario is a nonstarter, because as landlords the Muckleshoots have the right to veto any activity at Emerald. Daniels made it clear that they would exercise that right to ban slot machines.

In addition, Crockett argued persuasively that the 60 machines allotted to Emerald through the initiative would not generate enough income to cover the costs associated with installing and operating them, plus the lost revenue from admissions and parking.

"I-892 is a loser for us," he said. "If it came into play, we'd lose money whether we installed the machines or not."

The other scenario would have the Muckleshoots buying the track, going through the process to have it designated as tribal land, and installing slot machines. Daniels didn't like that idea, either.

"This is a Thoroughbred racetrack," he said. "Machine gambling would take away from what it has to offer. I think we could make it work the way it is."

Day to appear for benefit

Hall of Fame rider Pat Day is scheduled to be at Emerald Downs on Aug. 29. Day will ride, sign autographs, and serve as the featured speaker at a dinner to benefit the backstretch chaplaincy after the races.

Tickets for the prime rib and salmon buffet dinner are $25 and may be obtained through the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders Association or at the Quarter Chute Cafe.

* Catalogs are now available for the WTBA's annual summer yearling sale, which will be held Sept. 7 at the Morris J. Alhadeff Sales Pavilion on the grounds of Emerald Downs.