May 6, 2014
SEATTLE, Wash. -
By Scott Hanson, The Seattle Times
Joe Withee dreamed of a career in sports.
What else would you expect from a star basketball player at Kennedy High School who went on to Seattle University during its first incarnation as a Division I basketball school?
But Withee realized his dream in a field where he's not making long shots, but picking longshots. And the face of horse racing in the Northwest for the past 30 years hasn't regretted it for a second.
Withee's title at Emerald Downs is director of publicity and broadcasting, but that doesn't begin to describe all that he does. Among his duties is hosting morning radio shows on KJR, hosting Saturday afternoon TV shows on Comcastsports.net, handicapping each race on in-house TV at Emerald Downs and doing postrace interviews after big races.
And for more than 25 years, he has hosted the racing replays show after each card.
"Joe has done a huge amount for the racing industry," said Emerald Downs founder and president Ron Crockett. "He's had great talent since he started as a young guy at Longacres. Other than calling the races, he is the voice of racing here. He's very well liked, not only around here, but around the entire industry."
And to think this all began with a good day at Longacres in Renton for Withee and a friend, not long after they graduated from high school in 1971.
"We had beginners' luck big time," he said. "We bet on this horse named Palisades Prince and we got a $100 bill back. It seemed like all the money in the world. It was pretty exciting."
That winning day sparked an interest, but there was still basketball to pursue.
Withee played on the Seattle U freshman team that winter "after averaging about 20 points per game in my senior year at Kennedy."
Freshmen were ineligible to play varsity in Division I at that time, but Withee was surrounded by good talent, including Bob Gross, who eventually transferred to Long Beach State before an NBA career that included starting for Portland on its 1977 championship team.
Withee left Seattle U after that first season, realizing he wasn't going to be a star at that level. But he did play two years at Edmonds Community College before earning a history degree at Western Washington.
While at Western, he got involved in the broadcasting program. That led to an internship on a sports show at KVI radio station in addition to his full-time job selling mattresses. Withee often got guests from Longacres to appear on the show, and he would hang out in the press box at the racetrack.
That gave Withee the in he needed when the track needed someone to do radio reports. That was in 1984, the heyday of racing in the Northwest, when it was a frenetic job calling radio stations with racing updates.
"I would do 103 to 105 radio report calls a day," he said. "Longacres had built a heck of a tradition."
A career was born.
"I just wasn't all that goal-oriented," he said. "I didn't think I wanted to be a teacher and a coach for 30 years, but I liked sports. It's worked out very well."
Withee's responsibilities soon widened. The daily replay shows began in 1988, and that made him a familiar name to racing fans. After Longacres closed in 1992, Withee worked at Yakima Meadows.
He has been at Emerald since the track opened in 1996. After 30 years in the business, Withee, 61, still loves his job and says it doesn't get boring.
"Handicapping is a challenge, and I certainly like it," he said. "To do it properly, it takes time."
But Crockett says Withee has a big advantage when it comes to picking horses.
"I don't know anyone who has a memory like his," Crockett said. "Pick a Kentucky Derby or Longacres Mile or any big race, and give him a year, and he will tell you who won and how much he paid. His knowledge is unequaled."
For Withee, it's all part of the job. He enjoys it year-round, but particularly during the months of live racing.
"I enjoy dealing with the people and the horsemen," he said. "I realize the hard work they put in. The hours are long and they want their horses happy and healthy. I respect what they do."
And for 30 years, it has been a mutual respect.