For the Reporter
The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe has reached an agreement in principle with Northwest Racing Associates to acquire Emerald Downs, tribe and racetrack officials said Thursday.
Terms were not disclosed.
When the transaction closes in the next 60 to 90 days, the tribe will assume full ownership and operational control of the racetrack facilities, according to a tribe’s news release.
Ron Crockett, track and Northwest Racing Associates president, has agreed to serve as a consultant to the tribe to help with the transition to new ownership. The management team will remain in place.
“My goal has always been to preserve this important industry,” Crockett said. “I have accomplished that goal and this is a now good time for the tribe to step in and bring Emerald Downs to the next level.”
According to the release, after the transaction closes the tribe will undertake an evaluation of steps to strengthen the performance of Emerald Downs.
“The idea is to go forward and conduct business as usual as we head into our upcoming season,” said Bob Fraser, vice president of operations at Emerald Downs. “The tribe will take a look at the viability of the industry and make considerations and see what type of changes that they would like to make as they proceed into the future.
“The mood is very good. People are happy,” Fraser said of the announced change. “As far as the transition … it only makes sense the landlord takes over operation as ownership. They are already in the gaming industry. … They are strong in economic power in South King County, so this acquisition makes a lot of sense in many different levels.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity of working with the tribe and preserving the horse racing industry.”
Notwithstanding a number of legislatively authorized enhancements over the years, and the efforts of Crockett and his partners, horse racing has struggled in an increasingly difficult environment in the state and nationally.
But Fraser said attendance was up over 6 percent last season. The track, he said, has worked hard to market young families and different demographics in ways the Thoroughbred racing industry hasn’t done before.
The industry faces other challenges of breeding and supporting horse populations as tracks compete for Thoroughbreds, Fraser added.
Crockett ‘saved’ horse racing
Crockett, 75, a millionaire businessman, has been the primary person responsible for keeping the Thoroughbred racing industry afloat despite hard economic times. Behind Crockett, Emerald Downs opened in June 1996, resurrecting Thoroughbred racing in Western Washington about four years after the Longacres track shut down, ending a six-decade tradition.
King County Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who represents Auburn on the County Council, praised Crockett for his work and leadership.
“Ron Crockett not only saved the horse racing industry 20 years ago, but he also saved thousands of family wage jobs for people working at the track, as well as farmers producing the hay and feed for horses,” von Reichbauer said in a statement released Thursday. “There should be a statue of Ron Crockett at Emerald Downs commemorating his risk and commitment to save the horse racing industry in Washington state.”
Fraser said Crockett will remain a big part of Emerald Downs as the track makes the ownership transition.
“Ron has great expertise and knowledge,” Fraser said. “Having him still around and on board helping with the decisions is a benefit for both the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the success of Thoroughbred racing in the Northwest.
“He has no plans on slowing down, trust me. He has no plans of walking away,” Fraser said.
The transaction is the culmination of the the tribe’s support of Thoroughbred racing in the state over many years, including the following events:
• The tribe’s original gaming compact with the state in 1993 was the first in Washington to include off-track betting.
• Six years prior to purchasing the Emerald Downs property the tribe acquired the Playfair track in Spokane, although the transaction was never completed.
• The tribe has been racetrack’s landlord since 2002 when it acquired the 157-acre property on which Emerald Downs sits.
• In 2004 the tribe entered into an arrangement with Emerald Downs to enhance daily purses in an effort to stimulate the industry. Since that initial arrangement the tribe has invested more than $11 million in purse enhancements at Emerald Downs.
“The tribe’s long-standing support of the state’s Thoroughbred racing industry continues with this transaction,” said Muckleshoot Tribal Council Chair Virginia Cross. “It is the tribe’s goal to keep the Thoroughbred horse racing industry as a viable part of our state’s economy. Emerald Downs sits in the center of the tribe’s historical homeland and this transaction makes it an important part of our economic development program.”
The 2015 live racing season, the 20th in track history, is scheduled to run 70 days from April through September, including the 80th running of the Grade 3 Longacres Mile in August. The stable area opens Feb. 1.