Trainer Candi Tollett sometimes has to convince owner John Parker to relent on his persistent inclination to buy gray thoroughbreds, since nothing about their coats makes them faster.
Parker was asked to identify the root of his compulsion.
“Captain Condo,” he said without hesitation, naming one of the all-time favorite racehorses at Longacres, the defunct Renton track Parker frequently attended with his father when he was a boy.
Captain Condo, of course. The powerful gray gelding dominated Longacres in the late 1980s and left a lasting imprint on Parker.
That Parker’s decisions remain influenced by boyhood memories of cheering at the rail is representative of the kind of deep attachment to local racing tradition that deserves extra recognition as Emerald Downs opens up Saturday for its 20th season.
Both Parker and Tollett are trustees of the Washington Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association, and as such are focused on more than just winning races, working, additionally, to sustain and strengthen the legacy of the sport in Washington.
The past year has produced some of the biggest changes since Emerald Downs’ first opening on June 20, 1996. The purchase of the track by the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe came through last spring, shortly before the opening of the 2015 season.
The Tribe, which had owned the land since 2004, took over the track and management from Northwest Racing Associates. The most visible addition has been the giant video screen on the infield, but Tollett and Parker said there’s also been a sense of optimism among the horsemen on the backstretch.
Parker finished second in the owner standings last season with 15 wins and horses in the money at a 60-percent rate. His Gold Rush Dancer won the Gottstein Futurity on the final day of racing.
Tollett, meanwhile, got her first win as a trainer with Among the Stars last spring, finishing with 12 winners. But she’s hardly new to it all, having married into the Tollett racing family and having worked for years with brood stock and overseen the foaling of perhaps 200 thoroughbreds.
As much as anything, a trainer is an equine psychologist, helping them over their fears and aversions, massaging their confidence and competitiveness. And since Tollett has come to know so many of these babies from their first steps, she’s got added insight into their minds.
Transitioning to training, she said, was “a big learning curve, but the thing about this place is there’s a lot of people who are eager to help out.”
One of those was Parker, who was increasing his stock and trusted some of the training to Candi. The thing he most appreciated about her, he said, was her honesty about the horses, which allowed him to so fully trust her opinions.
Parker serves as antidote to any image of racehorse owners as box-seat blue bloods looking for ways to spend their trust funds. When he got into horse ownership, he was a truck driver. He worked 14-hour days and built his business into Freight Northwest, and he now runs a fleet of trucks geared for same-day deliveries.
The burly Parker, 54, wears a wedge of swept-back hair and a thick gray moustache. He could be Mike Ditka’s younger brother.
Tollett claims the gregarious Parker could have another title: Mayor of Emerald Downs. “He just knows everybody, and everybody loves him,” she said.
Parker explains why he stops about every five steps to talk to everyone he sees at the track: “They’re all so interesting; they’ve all got such great stories.”
He’s certainly a great ambassador for the sport, coming up with a decent explanation of the intoxicating lure of “the horses, the track, the smell, the excitement, the people … it’s addictive.”
After an interview at the Quarter Chute Café, Parker and Tollett can’t head back to the barns until a couple bags of pastries are purchase to take back to the crew “doing the real work,” Tollett said.
When Parker takes visitors down the shed row to introduce his horses, heads start straining out of the stalls, accompanied by snickering and pawing by horses eager for the carrots he bestows.
On the way, Candi tells a story about Parker that illustrates his personal connection to horses. When he became aware that one of his favorite Longacres racers, Loto Canada, was fading in retirement in Yakima, he brought him back to his farm for another 10 years of pampered treatment.
“I think that tells you a lot about John Parker,” she said.
Carrying a pensioner for so many years has nothing to do with the profit/loss calculus of horse racing.
It’s an example that horses own and train the people who love them as much as the other way around.
Yes, it’s a business under the veneer or sport, but it’s deeper, too, and it gets in the blood as surely as the traits that get passed down from broodmare to foal, like the blood that makes them want to race. The blood that makes them who they are.