Historic Structures

History of Horse Racing in the Northwest Longacres Park Horse Track, Renton Washington

The roots of "the Sport of Kings" in the Pacific Northwest are found in a melding of Native American and Euro-American cultural traditions. As early as the 1780s, coastal natives west of the Cascade Mountains enjoyed the ownership of horses descended from Spanish territories to the south. On their overland journey to the Pacific, the explorers Lewis and Clark recorded their surprise at the calibre of native-bred Pacific Northwest horses. The breeding and racing of fine horses emerged as one of Washington Territory's earliest industries, along with fishing, mining, and logging. Horses were valued by settlers and natives alike for their strength and speed, as tools for transportation, as aids to agricultural activity, and as instruments of sport.

The first written record of horse-racing competition in the Pacific Northwest comes from the journals of the Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Nisqually on Puget Sound. There, Native Americans and Hudson's Bay employees staged a racing meet in 1842 for visiting members of the Wilke's Expedition. By the 1860s, races were held on private tracks and at fledgling community racecourses throughout the Territory. At his pioneer farm on the Duwamish River just south of Seattle, Luther Collins had a racing oval. Even at this early date, horses were brought overland from as far away as California, Victoria, and coastal areas for races in the Puget Sound country.

In the 1870s, professional racing circuits took shape when transcontinental railroads first pushed into the region offering rapid long-distance travel. From western Montana, to southern Oregon, to British Columbia, a triangle of horse-racing activity developed. In the same decade, the bloodline of the Thoroughbred spread throughout the country. The first known thoroughbred horse in King County, Washington, was purchased by professional gambler and brothel-owner John Pinnell of Seattle from Leland Stanford of California. From the beginning, gambling played a crucial role in the commercial success of professional horse racing. The practice of gambling, strongly rooted in native, European, and Asian cultures, encouraged the multiethnic popularity of the sport even in its earliest years.

Race horses of all breeds in these early decades came out of small, privately-owned stables, but more significantly out of commercial stables associated with businesses that relied upon strong, fast horses -- breweries, drayage companies, and liveries. The top winning horses from these stables became important advertising tools for their sponsors. The horse "Spokane," which won the 1889 Kentucky Derby, was the property of the owner of the successful Seattle Transfer drayage company.

By the 1880s and 1890s, horse racing in the Pacific Northwest was highly organized. Private jockey clubs sought to maintain uniform rules and to regulate the sport. Professional breeders, trainers, and riders made their livings within the industry. The racing circuits remained vulnerable to economic fluctuations and demographic changes within the fast-growing region, and racing meets were often abruptly shifted to boom-town localities. As property values increased in expanding cities, racecourses were pushed further to the outskirts of town. Smaller communities often built permanent facilities at the local fairgrounds. At the turn of the century, horse racing was thriving in the Pacific Northwest, attracting participants from Canada to Mexico. To support it, a small but excellent breeding industry had flowered in Washington State from its Native American roots.

It was in this milieu that the growing city of Seattle acquired its first formal, eastcoast styled racecourse in the summer of 1902. Built just upriver from Georgetown in the Duwamish River Valley on what is now Boeing Field, "the Meadows" was a popular but shortlived phenomenon. Organized by the King County Fair Association, the Meadows' chief backer and manager was a well-known former state senator and horse-breeder, Aaron T. Van Devanter. Another investor was Meyer Gottstein, successful whiskey wholesaler and the father of young Joseph Gottstein.

The Meadows boasted a one-mile racing oval 60-feet in width, a spacious grandstand with a seating capacity of 8000, and an elegant clubhouse erected by the Seattle Driving Club. The infield featured a large ornamental pond, and the stables accommodated up to 600 horses. Van Devanter himself built a commodious country residence on the grounds."

On opening day, August 18, 1902, the Meadows drew a crowd of 3000 fans. The Seattle Electric Company ran extra trains on the Interurban line for the event, but it was still necessary to add on cattle cars with open seating. That practice became standard during subsequent racing seasons.

Seattle's elite were soon attracted to the Meadows as well, some of them traveling in their own newly-acquired automobiles. Meyer Gottstein's family became regular attendees, and through these visits and exposure to his father's private stable of thoroughbreds, Joe Gottstein developed a love for the color and excitement of the race track.

Gambling was part of the excitement at the Meadows where some 150 bookmakers operated independently. Off-track betting took place in saloons, especially in wide-open Georgetown itself where no local option laws had restricted the sale of liquor. Increasingly, as a mood of moral reform swept the nation from the east coast to the west, Seattle politicians sought to clean up the city's vices before the opening of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. Liquor, prostitution, and racetrack gambling became the targets of a reform-minded local press. The Meadows was charged with corruption and race-fixing, and pilloried as a sink hole of "disgrace, ruin, despair, and suicide."

To eradicate the problem once and for all, Seattle's representative to the state Legislature, "Holy" 0le Hanson, waged a campaign against bookmaking, and in 1909 introduced a bill banning race-track gambling. The bill passed unanimously, and was followed by equally stringent local anti-gambling ordinances in cities and towns across the state. After only seven seasons of operation, the popular Meadows shut down. Professional thoroughbred racing in Washington came to a halt, and the fledgling breeding industry which depended upon it, was dealt a near deathblow. Horse racing on an amateur level continued at small local meets and county fairs, and the rodeo industry came to life in Washington during this period. But the resurgence of the "Sport of Kings" would wait 25 years for the return of a supportive moral and economic climate.

The Great Depression ushered in just such a change of climate in the state of Washington in 1933. Suddenly, the notion of generating state revenues through taxes on horse racing, gambling, and liquor sales became attractive to lawmakers. In March of 1933, Representative Joseph D. Roberts of King County successfully pushed through House Bill 59, a measure which legalized the pari-mutuel form of race track gambling.

The Race Track Bill stipulated that five percent of the gross amount wagered at tracks across Washington be directed to state coffers. Under Section 9 of the bill, 80 percent of this take would be distributed to the counties for their contributions to an Old Age Pension Fund, and the remainder would be applied to the establishment of the Washington Horse Racing Commission. The duties of the new Commission were defined to include the granting of racing licenses, the allotting of racing seasons or meets, and the policing of race tracks and associated gambling activities. Serving on the state's first Racing Commission were chairman Edwin J. Brown, state senator from Tacoma, Dr. A. R. Galbraith of Centralia, and Allen Drumheller, whose Walla Walla ranch had been breeding fine race horses since the 1880s.

The moral opposition to race track gambling had not by any means disappeared.

When the iniquitous bill became law, churches joined with the Grange, the PTA, and the local press in a last-ditch effort to repeal it. A referendum campaign was launched and seemed to gather force through the spring, even as plans for Longacres took shape. By June 7, 1933, the petition effort had died a sudden death for lack of signatures.

Behind the scenes in the push for legalized thoroughbred horse racing was self-made millionaire Vinson Joseph Gottstein. There was much in Joe Gottstein's background which presaged his eventual creation of Longacres. Early summers at the Meadows, jaunts to east coast tracks while a student at Brown University in Rhode Island, and a family visit to Longcharaps racecourse in Paris, fired his life-long passion for horse racing and gambling.

As a young businessman in Seattle, Gottstein displayed a consistent willingness to take risks. When Prohibition shut down his father's wholesale whiskey business, Gottstein saw the future in the entertainment industry. His decision in 1916 to build the lavish Coliseum Theatre for moving pictures, without the usual stage for legitimate productions, was a decided gamble. As a speculator and developer of real estate in the 1920s, Gottstein was most successful. He began to work in informal partnership with theatre owner William Edris in the years following World War One, and together the two bought, sold, and built numerous commercial buildings in downtown Seattle. In 1930, Gottstein brokered a ten million dollar real estate deal that made headlines in the Post-Intelligencer.

Despite the promise of that transaction, the full force of the Great Depression soon brought Seattle business to its knees, and Gottstein, too, suffered enormous losses on paper. In the midst of this economic disaster, Gottstein contemplated an even greater gamble and determined to build a thoroughbred race track. Knowing that his project hinged upon the passage of the race track bill, Gottstein pursued that angle with the help of up-and-coming politician Warren Magnuson, and Native American legislator George Adams of Shelton. In the meanwhile, Gottstein organized the Washington Jockey Club. Bill Edris joined in as a major investor. When three potential California backers withdrew their support, Gottstein and Edris moved forward alone.