Historic Structures

History of Longacres Longacres Park Horse Track, Renton Washington

Joseph Gottstein and Associates, doing business as the Washington Jockey Club, were among the first to make application to the newly-formed Washington Horse Racing Commission for a racing license and meeting dates. Only seven licenses were granted by the Commission in that first year of legalized racing, and the Washington Jockey Club's was one of only two that were actually taken up.

With the Commission's award of a 40-day racing meet in hand, and the referendum forces in full retreat, Gottstein wasted no further time in finalizing his lease on the Nelson farm at Renton Junction. That concluded, project architect B. Marcus Priteca was authorized to proceed with design drawings. When Longacres opened as scheduled on August 3, 1933, to a rousing crowd of 11,000 fans, the Sport of Kings had returned to the Pacific Northwest and Joe Gottstein's long-time dream was realized.

For Longacres inaugural meet, Gottstein had wisely recruited some of the most experienced, well-connected racing officials on the west coast. General Manager Jack P. Atkins of California helped to promote Longacres in that state. Racing Secretary George Cruikshank, promoter and former King County Assessor, had helped to guide the racing bill through the Legislature. Webb Everett, J. S. Rothert, and James Gallagher would serve as finish line judges. Even turf writer and race caller Joe Hernandez was imported from California.

Despite good management and growing attendance, Gottstein's Longacres gamble did not turn a profit in its first decade of operation. The track lost money and, in 1937, William Edris withdrew. To keep purses high, Gottstein took out a mortgage on the Coliseum Theatre and sold his shares in the Seattle Seahawks semi-pro hockey team. At that point Gottstein's friend B. N. Hutchinson infused new capital into the business. All the while Gottstein continued to invest (as he would in future decades) in plant improvements, in promotional events, and in an expanded racing program.

In 1935, Gottstein introduced a showpiece event to the seasonal program, the Longacres Mile. With its $10,000 added purse, it was the richest, fastest, and soon proved the most dangerous race in the country. In the inaugural running of the Mile, the Kentucky-bred Coldwater delighted crowds to win by a head at odds of 17 to 1. The Longacres mile gave the new racecourse its identity and generated publicity nationwide. For local racing fans, it became the highlight of the season.

In the late 1930s came some important technological innovations to the track, bringing Longacres "in line with the other major racing plants of the United States." For the 1938 season, Longacres introduced the all-electric Totalizer, the first of its kind in Washington. As described by the Washington Horse Racing Commission, the totalizer was a combination printing machine, adding machine, and indicator. As wagers were placed at the parimutuel windows, tickets were printed and automatically issued by the "tote" machine. The total amounts bet in straight, place, and show categories were instantaneously registered as electrically lighted figures on the large infield indicator board, allowing fans to note the changing odds. After the race was run, the "tote" board automatically displayed the complete picture of the winning horses, including total amounts wagered, odds, and returns to be paid on winning tickets.

A second improvement installed at Longacres in the 1938 season was the track's first photo-finish, or "eye in the sky" camera. Mounted high on the judges' stand, the camera shot a series of sequential shots at the finish line. Within three minutes time, the images were developed in the photo-finish tower, turned over to the racing stewards, and projected on large screens in the clubhouse and grandstand.

Gottstein introduced a third major technological advance in the 1940 season at Longacres. The old, horse-pulled Bahr starting gate was replaced by a new, streamlined "Santa Anita Westinghouse Magnetic Control Starting Gate." The mechanism had been invented by Don McKenzie of Vancouver, B.C., and had been tested only one season earlier at Santa Anita in California. With this new device, electric magnets held the 12 swing-out stall gates closed until the starter pressed a master button to break the electrical contact. All gates swung open simultaneously, with no possibility of any one gate remaining locked.

In the early years of World War Two, industry flourished in Seattle and patrons flocked to Longacres. Just as the track was beginning to show a profit, Governor Arthur Langlie and the Racing Commission imposed a ban on all horse racing in 1943 in support of the war effort. Despite determined opposition from Washington Jockey Club president Joe Gottstein, who offered to turn over 100 percent of the season's profits to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Commission held its ground, citing the effects a meeting would have upon housing, manpower, and the already overburdened local transportation network.

During Longacres only "dark" season in the summer of 1943, the U. S. Army occupied the infield of the racing oval. There they installed anti-aircraft guns to protect camouflaged Boeing aircraft facilities nearby, and pitched rows of tents around the perimeter of the track. Hidden behind the infield "tote" board, the Army erected a small officers' barracks. After one uneventful year, the Army departed and horse racing was resumed in the 1944 season. Joe and his wife Luella Gottstein remodelled the officers' barracks as a summer cottage, and lived there each season thereafter in the tradition of owners at Churchill Downs and Oaklawn Park.

In the Gottstein years, winter flooding of the Green River Valley was not an unusual event. Annual floods kept the valley's bottomland fertile and gave the racing oval at Longacres its soft, springy texture. The worst flood in Longacres history occurred in December of 1946 when the Green river overflowed its banks with particularly disastrous consequences at Renton Junction. The flood waters dislodged barns in the Longacres backstretch, and carried muddy debris to the first-floor levels of the clubhouse and grandstand. Damages in excess of $65,000 forced extensive repairs and improvements at the race track. By 1963, the construction of dikes and the Howard Hanson Dam had virtually eliminated the threat of floods.

An important accomplishment of the Gottstein era was the concerted build-up of the state's thoroughbred breeding industry. In 1933 when the sport was legalized, only seven or eight breeders were in business in Washington. By 1940, the existence of Longacres and other smaller tracks around the state had pushed this number to 30. But the greatest impetus for improvement of the breed came in August of 1940 with the founding of the Washington Horse Breeders Association (WHBA), now renamed the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders Association. The stated purpose of the new organization was to study thoroughbred lines, to hold open discussions on breeding problems, and to improve the quality of thoroughbred stock through selective breeding and the importation of stallions and broodmares of national stature. It was the organization's strong belief that Washington offered many natural advantages to a successful breeding industry, including limestone formations and superior timothy hay -- both conducive to the raising of healthy young stock. Under the guiding hand of the WHBA, the state's thoroughbred industry would flourish until, by 1992, Washington was fourth in the production of prize-winning, record-setting thoroughbreds nationwide, eclipsed only by Kentucky, California, and Florida.

Joe Gottstein himself was convinced that the future of Longacres was inextricably tied to a strong local breeding industry, and he was a major force behind the formation of the WHBA. In later years he leased land at the south end of Longacres to the WHBA for their barns and sales pavilion. His own Elttaes (Seattle spelled backwards) Stable bred and trained some of the most outstanding horses ever to run at Longacres, including King's Favor and Steel Blade, both of whom would win the Longacres Mile, in 1967 and 1968 respectively." To back up his efforts, Gottstein created the Washington Futurity in 1940, a race for two-year-olds foaled in Washington. Campus Fusser, owned and bred by Allen Drumheller, won the inaugural run. A purse of $1200 was established for the first Futurity (later changed to the Gottstein Futurity upon Joe's death in 1971), and $50 went to the breeder. More races for Washington-bred horses were added to the Longacres program and bonuses for Washington breeders increased dramatically over the years.

In the first three decades of Longacres history, while Joe Gottstein remained firmly at the helm, dozens of highcalibre trainers, horses, and jockeys set national records at the Renton oval. These annual statistics are welldocumented in various formats such as the Washington Horse Racing Commission's biennial reports, the WHBA's publication Washington Horse, and the Emerald Racing Association's "End of an Era" Commemorative Yearbook. Some of the trainers of greatest renown in that period included Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham; Ruth Parton, the only licensed female trainer in America in her day; Earl "Miracle Man" Beazley, trainer for William Boeing's stables; Allen Drumheller, from Washington's first family of thoroughbred breeders; E. A. "Sleepy" Armstrong, pioneer breeder, trainer, and owner; and Frances Keller, two-time Longacres training champion in the 1940s. George Adams, Earl Barbour, Don Porter, Hump Roberts, Wayne Branch, and Glen Williams were among the other early trainers who earned award-winning reputations at Longacres.

Legendary horses who made Longacres famous in the Gottstein decades included Coldwater, winner of the inaugural Longacres Mile; Amble In, first double winner of the Longacres Mile; Triplane, owned by Allen Drumheller and winner of the Longacres Mile, Independence Day and Tacoma Handicaps in the late 1930s; Dark Damsel, remembered as the fastest filly ever to run at Longacres, who vaulted the outside rail in the final stretch; Call Call, winner of seven stakes events at Longacres from 1953-1958; Collaborator, the last horse to win both the Longacres Derby and the Longacres Mile in one year (1958); Hank H., one of the first Washington-bred horses to go over $100,000 in earnings with five wins in eight starts at Longacres; and Sparrow Castle, the first horse to win nine stakes races at Longacres, including the 1960 Longacres Derby and the 1961 Longacres Mile.

Among the great jockeys of the early decades at Longacres were Johnny Longden, Eddie Arcaro, Doug Dodson, Ralph Neves, Otto Grohs (with 96 wins in 1939), Charlie Rails, and Joe Baze (with 90 wins in 1950). In the 1950s and '60s, other jockey stars at Longacres who captured annual riding titles included Robert Ford, Grant Zufelt, Merlin Volzke, Merill Faulkner (with 86 wins in 1956), Paul Frey, Pepper Porter, Jimmy Craswell, Larry Byers, and Enrique de Alba (with 103 wins in 1961).

Joe Gottstein's imprint upon Longacres and upon the horseracing and breeding industry in Washington state was widespread and indelible. Even after his semi-retirement in 1963, his dominance of the local racing scene lived on until his death by cancer in 1971. In business Gottstein was shrewd, tenacious, and resourceful. His devotion to the industry as a whole was indisputable, as evidenced by his commitment to maintaining Longacres as the Northwest's premier racecourse, and his visionary approach to bettering the quality of Washington's thoroughbred stock. Gottstein was known as well for his big-hearted generosity. Stories abound of his quiet compassion for financially-strapped backstretch families, some of whose associations with the track spanned several generations. For his community beneficence and charitable giving, Gottstein was equally well-recognized.

It was a gradual transition of authority which took place between Joe Gottstein, founder of Longacres, and his son-in-law and successor, Morris J. Alhadeff. Widely known around Seattle as radio personality "Jerry Morris," Alhadeff first joined the Longacres staff as public relations director in 1947, five years after his marriage to Gottstein's daughter Joan. By the mid-1950s, Morrie Alhadeff was vice-president and general manager of the track. Although Gottstein had publicly announced his intention to relinquish some control over the day-to-day management of Longacres in 1963, the reins of power remained in his hands until his death in 1971. At that time, Alhadeff was named president and chief executive officer of the Washington Jockey Club.

With his previous experience in radio promotions, Alhadeff sought to market the color and excitement of horse racing at Longacres to a wider audience. Through feature articles, television appearances, tours of the backstretch, and promotional events Alhadeff and public relations director Budd Dugan achieved a steady increase in attendance through the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s. Particular efforts were made to attract whole families to the track. By 1977, Longacres boasted the highest percentage of young fans of any racecourse in the country.

In the Alhadeff era, large-scale additions and alterations were made to the public facilities on the front side. The evolution of the second grandstand, from open-air bleachers to a concrete and steel structure with a betting and refreshment pavilion below, took place in the late 1960s while Gottstein was still alive. During the 1970s and early 1980s, it was Alhadeff, however, who planned and carried out the 20,000 square-foot addition to the clubhouse mezzanines, the roofing of the second grandstand (which thereafter became known as "Big Bertha"), and the construction of the 5,200 square-foot Gazebo Terraces. For the latter, Alhadeff instructed architect Richard McCann, Priteca's successor, to design something as dramatic as the landscaped infield at Santa Anita race track. When the Gazebo was officially opened in 1974 before a crowd of 15,000 fans, Morrie Alhadeff proudly noted, "They don't have anything like this anywhere, not even at Longchamps."

Two major additions made under Alhadeff s guidance were controversial. The two-story Paddock Club, completed in 1978 with reserved seating for 1,200, made off-season promotional events possible, but ruined open viewing of the paddock below it. The North Grandstand, built around the Gazebo, was constructed in response to overflow crowds on Longacres Mile Day in 1981. Never again, Alhadeff declared, would fans be turned away for lack of seating capacity. The North Grandstand was an acknowledged planning mistake, however, for it blocked views of the north turn into the stretch from "Big Bertha."

As the clubhouse expanded, Morrie Alhadeff brought in fine equestrian art to enliven its interior spaces. Artist Kenneth Callahan was commissioned to create 76 sepia, orange, and umber-toned images of horse-racing action and backstretch activities at Longacres. Management built the Callahan Room specifically to house this artwork as well as a collection of Pascal glass horse sculptures. Following a ten-year stay at Seattle's Opera House, a 4 x 18-foot Callahan painting of horses in motion joined the clubhouse collection.

The Alhadeff era witnessed numerous advances in race track technology, the pace of these changes increasing in the 1980s. The Pewitt Starting Gate, designed by former Longacres starter Clay Pewitt, replaced the Santa Anita Westinghouse Magnetic Control Gate in the 1960s, and a customized shed had to be built for it in the maintenance area. "Hotwalkers" (originally the term used to describe young people hired to cool down horses after a workout) gradually lost their jobs to electric walkers installed throughout the backstretch. In 1986, the traditional racing day was lengthened into evening when Alhadeff added lighting around the oval for night racing. Through television technology, live racing action and instant replays could soon be viewed in any interior bar or restaurant at Longacres and, by 1988, in satellite betting rooms in Bellingham, Yakima, Port Angeles, Aberdeen, and the Tri-Cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland. Longacres came into the computer age, retaining the reputation it had quickly gained in the 1930s as the most up-to-the-minute race track facility in the Pacific Northwest.

Through all the highly-visible front side changes of the Alhadeff decades, life along the backstretch, where some 1500 thoroughbreds were stabled each racing season, remained much the same. A community of families and life-long friends, the Longacres backstretch was known in racing circles as a safe, wholesome environment for children. A good number of the trainers, jockeys, exercise riders, grooms, farriers, and other employees on the backstretch were, by the 1980s, second or third generation Longacres families. A typical day began about 4:30 a.m. with the early morning exercise runs, cleaning of stalls, and coffee and conversation at the Backstretch Cafe. It was an inwardly-focused world where all work, all talk, and all thoughts centered upon the task of preparing the horses to run at top speed. A good many services and functions in support of that effort were performed along the backstretch, and these evolved and changed over the decades as the community grew. In the later Alhadeff years, these services were housed in specialized facilities that included a veterinarian clinic, shoeing shops, a chaplain's office, testing barns, a tack shop, restroom and shower facilities, a first-aid station, race registration office, barn-area superintendent's quarters, a full-service cafe, and, under separate lease to the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders Association, a sales pavilion and sales barn complex. By the late 1960s, the stable capacity at Longacres had maximized at 76 barns.

Out of the Longacres backstretch during the Alhadeff decades came all-time champion trainers, horses, and jockeys. Top star trainers included: Kathy Walsh, first award-winning woman trainer at Longacres with four championships in the 1970s; Tom Roberts, with five such championships in the 1980s; Ben Harris with an all-time single season record of 93 wins in 1991; and Bud Klokstad, with a second-high 49 career stakes victories.

Among the top Washington-bred horses in recent Longacres history were: Grey Papa, world-record holder for six furlongs set in 1972; Trooper Seven, first winner of successive Longacres Miles in 1980 and 1981; Chinook Pass, one of the fastest thoroughbreds in history, voted the nation's top sprinter in 1983; Turbulator, one of the most popular horses ever to run at Longacres, set a world record for 6!$ furlongs in 1970; Captain Condo, the other all-time favorite at Longacres, tied the track record of twelve stakes victories at age 9; and Belle of Rainier, the leading career money-winning mare with earnings of $424,526.

Record-holding Longacres jockeys of the 1970s and 1980s included: Gary Baze, top career winner with 1,513 victories; Gary Boulanger, top single-season winner at 247 in 1991; Gary Stevens, nationally prominent with a 1988 Kentucky Derby victory; Vicky Aragon, first woman jockey champion with 179 wins in 1986; Lennie Knowles, second alltime winner with 1,263 victories; and Larry Pierce, only local jockey to win seven races in one day (May 20, 1972).

Longacres prospered under the second-generation management of Morrie Alhadeff. Just as attendance figures increased into the early 1980s, so too did the average daily mutuel handle. It reached $500,000 in 1971, $1 million in 1979, and $1.3 million in 1981. By 1977, nearly 800 people were on the payroll of the Washington Jockey Club, a figure which continued to rise as front side facilities expanded. Business began to slump, however, after the peak year of 1981. Industry-wide recession accounted in part for the decline. Land values in the Green River Valley had risen dramatically as commercial and industrial development encircled the track. With this urbanization came higher taxes and increasing traffic snarls. Longacres faced stiff competition, too, from Seattle's major-league baseball, football, soccer and basketball and, finally, from the state lottery.

In 1988, Morrie Alhadeff stepped aside to make way for his sons Michael and Kenneth, named president and vice-president respectively. Immediately, the third generation of management took steps to revive the business. To begin, the new marketing department surveyed fans to determine the public perception of Longacres. Price differentials between the various front side "districts" were removed, and the Turf Club opened for the first time to non-members. Colorful first-timers kits were offered, and beginners betting windows established to make handicapping more accessible to newcomers. Simulcasting of races, exotic wagers that offered larger winnings, espresso stands, suggestion boxes, and Northwest microbrews on tap, all helped to reverse the track's fortunes. The average daily handle rose in 1988, for the first time since 1981 , and reached an all-time record high of $1,320,000 in 1990. Few people realized when the racing meet closed that year, management had already made a momentous decision -- one that would change the course of thoroughbred racing in the Pacific Northwest and mark the end of an era.

On September 27, 1990, three days after the close of the track's most successful meet to date, Morris, Michael, and Kenneth Alhadeff announced their decision to sell Longacres race track to the Boeing Company. Boeing, in turn, unveiled its plans the following spring to build a new Customer Services Training Center and other facilities on the site. The race track property would be redeveloped over a period of ten years as a landscaped, office park.

The announcement of the sale of Longacres and closure of the track took the region's horse racing industry by surprise. Throughout the greater Seattle area, the many-faceted story received extensive coverage by the news media. Within hours after the sale was made public, Washington's thoroughbred industry's leaders organized the Emerald Racing Association, a non-profit group devoted to preserving live racing in Western Washington until a new track could be built. Emerald quickly raised $3 million for start-up operating costs, and entered into negotiations for a short-term lease of the facilities at Longacres. Through the cooperation of Boeing, Emerald secured a one year, rent-free lease of the track for the 1991 season. Longacres was officially renamed Longacres Park, and a newly-renovated facility opened to racing fans on April 3, 1991, under the stewardship of the Emerald Racing Association.

A second and final season of live racing under Emerald took place at Longacres in the summer of 1992. On September 21, the closing day of the last meet, the largest crowd in the history of Longacres (26,095 fans, including satellite totals) watched the horses run one final time. The crowds that day set an all time, single-day handle record of $3,399,087. In 1993, Emerald operated a summer meet of live racing at Yakima Meadows in Yakima, Washington. The races were simulcast to smaller crowds of loyal fans in the clubhouse at Longacres Park.

In the fall of 1992, after the close of Longacres' last season of live racing, Boeing began its redevelopment of the site. Forty-two barns and backstretch facilities north of the "Gap" were photo-documented prior to demolition, as was the northernmost turn of the race track and its border of Lombardy poplars. On November 24th, ground breaking took place for construction of the Customer Services Training Center and two support buildings.

During the final two-years of live racing at Longacres under the Longacres site to the Emerald Racing Association, the horse racing industry in Western Washington began to plan for the building of a new race track. Various development options and alternate locations were proposed. In April of 1933, the Washington Horse Racing Commission gave approval to Northwest Racing Associates to construct and operate a thoroughbred race track in Auburn, Washington.