By T. D. Thornton
At the six-month mark of the shutdown of live racing in Arizona that is the result of both the pandemic and a prolonged fight over off-track betting (OTB) privileges, the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA) has reportedly secured some of the disputed money from the horsemen's account that had been controlled by Turf Paradise and placed it into a trust to pay purses if and when racing resumes elsewhere.
This news was shared in the form of a widely circulated email that made the rounds on social media Monday. It was purportedly written to the AZHBPA membership by National HBPA president Leroy Gessmann and dated Sept. 12.
“[AZHPA president] Bob Hutton, with suggestions from the Board members, was able to acquire part of our purse fund from Turf Paradise,” the email stated. “These funds are now in our control in a trust account and will remain there until our legal issues with Turf Paradise are resolved. When they are available, they will only be used for purse money, for whatever track wants to run a live meet! We have retained an attorney that is working on getting the rest of our money and all money earned in 2021 by Turf Paradise's OTBs. If [Turf Paradise] won't host a live meet for Arizona horsemen, they should not be able to profit from our business.”
The state's two commercial tracks are Turf Paradise in Phoenix and Arizona Downs 82 miles north in Prescott.
Turf Paradise ended its spring meet prematurely Mar. 14 as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation. Last month track management withdrew its dates request for a traditional 2020-21 autumn-to-spring meet, citing liability concerns related to COVID-19.
Arizona Downs is the former Yavapai Downs. It reopened in 2019 under the new name but called off part of its race meet because of a simulcasting signal dispute that eventually wound up in the courts. Its 2020 summer season never started as scheduled because local health officials would not extend permission to reopen under pandemic conditions.
At a Sept. 10 Arizona Racing Commission meeting, members of the horse racing community lobbied for officials to help clear the way for expanded dates at Arizona Downs.
“Arizona Downs future with racing is totally dependent on the proposal that Arizona Downs presents to the HBPA board,” the email stated. “The HBPA will make sure the purses are funded properly and that the management team is performing to the standards that the Arizona Horsemen deserve…The HBPA is about live racing and any permittee that doesn't support live racing will not be recognized by our group. No permittee will be able to operate OTBs after Dec. 31, 2020, without having a live meet!”
At the Sept. 10 commission meeting, chairman Rory Goree said that moving forward, the commission needs to “start looking at what the requirements are regarding live racing versus having an OTB [and] what powers we may have regarding if [a licensee is] not offering live racing [but still operating] OTB networks.”