By T. D. Thornton
The ownership group that wants to buy the currently closed Turf Paradise is reportedly at the escrow stage of closing on the sale, but a projected Jan. 13 opening day was met with skepticism when the prospective majority buyer was pressed to name a start date at Thursday's Arizona Racing Commission (AZRC) meeting.
“At this point where we're at, and not having the complete [new ownership] application, there may be a delay from January moving forward,” said Rudy Casillas, the deputy director of the AZRC's racing division, told commissioners after brief comments by Richard Moore, the chief executive officer for potential buyer Turf Paradise Land Trust.
Casillas cited both the commission's own lengthy approval process for a new track licensee and what he said was a federal requirement imposed by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) that stipulates “a 90-day advance notice from any track before their implementation of racing.”
“Racing may not start until February or March depending on how things go with the vetting and background investigation,” Casillas said.
Lloyd Yother, the president of the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA), expressed a feeling of being left out of the loop on the status of what might happen at the last remaining commercially active track on a circuit that hasn't hosted Thoroughbred racing for six months.
“We're still in our state of confusion in how things are going down and what's transpiring, what's taking place,” Yother said. “There's so many moving targets [and] we still are at the mercy and going through our normal frustrations with how things are to come about…. We have no earthly idea when and if a meet will be performed at Turf Paradise.”
Despite that sense of helplessness, the AZHBPA does have one important cudgel of control within its grasp: Its board of directors will be meeting Friday to vote on whether to extend the required interstate simulcasting permissions beyond Nov. 12 so Turf Paradise's 37 off-track betting parlors won't go dark.
Yother said that meeting will determine “whether or not to terminate our signal [permission] or move it forward to [Dec. 31] giving the opportunity for all parties to get their act together and make this happen.”
The vote will likely come down to weighing the benefits of keeping the OTBs open (which would allow the new Turf Paradise owner to build up revenue for the purse account) versus closing them (which would make it clear that the AZHBPA has had it with constantly being asked to extend simulcasting privileges to entities that don't conduct live racing).
Turf Paradise ended its racing season back in May with a different buyer doing due diligence to purchase the property. On Aug. 1, track owner Jerry Simms announced Turf Paradise wouldn't be opening in November as scheduled for its traditional six-month meet.
On Sept. 18, the months-long purported sale with the first buyer was publicly declared dead. Then 10 days later, Simms announced a new buyer had suddenly emerged with a desire to purchase the 213-acre property and save racing at the 67-year-old track.
The AZRC met on Sept. 28 and Oct. 12 without anyone from the new prospective buying group speaking in person. But during the Nov. 9 meeting, Simms introduced Moore of Turf Paradise Land Trust, noting that the two parties have been at the escrow stage of the deal since Oct. 18.
“We're going through that contract and executing that contract and hopefully everything goes well and we're going to buy the track and continue on with the racing there in Arizona,” Moore said. “That's our main goal.
“We're very excited about this,” Moore said. “We're looking forward to it. And we're getting up to speed on where it's at [to] bring the track up to par and to also make it better and to move forward. And we're definitely committed to bring in the necessary funds and commitment and support to make this a destination. And we have a lot of dreams and hopes and things that we'd like to accomplish once we gain ownership.”
The Arizona Corporations Commission's website lists no active registration for Turf Paradise Land Trust other than a name reservation made on Oct. 2.
Beyond one question from commissioner Linda York about specifics on the buying group's timetable, Moore was not asked by the AZRC to detail anything about Turf Paradise Land Trust or its plans for the future of the Phoenix track.
York's question about the timing of the meet yielded a response from Moore that the season is projected to start Jan. 13 and would last “to May.” Moore added that the sale of the property would likely close before the end of 2023.
After Casillas weighed in that such a timetable might be a stretch, Simms told commissioners that he has already been in talks with the HISA Authority about fast-tracking the process for accreditation, and he claimed to have an assurance that “they could probably get that done a lot quicker [to] work with our time frames.”
Turf Paradise has been plagued by safety issues in recent seasons, and as recently as the Oct. 12 commission meeting, Simms and Yother sparred over whether or not extensive repairs are needed for the main track rail.
Yother claimed the fencing is not up to spec and Simms countered that Turf Paradise had fixed problems related to a non-compliance warning issued by the HISA Authority earlier this year after an inspection turned up “numerous gaps and exposed edges in the railing material that could inflict serious harm upon jockeys…”
At the Nov. 9 meeting, Arizona's chief state steward, Jason Hart, said he has been making regular visits to Turf Paradise over the past few weeks. Although Hart acknowledged that the rail had been “in pretty bad shape” at end of the last meet, he said every time he has visited since Oct. 23, he has observed workers shoring it up.
“My expertise or my opinion would be the rail looks very safe at this point,” Hart said. “There's a couple of things that don't look pretty with the rail, but it is absolutely safe in my opinion.”
Hart added that the turf course well pump has been fixed, and that the grass course is being watered regularly after being seeded and fertilized.
Hart also detailed how six barns have had the copper wiring cut out of them, but that he has been assured by current track management that electricians have been hired to re-wire those stables.
Hart also said frontside windows that appeared to have been blown out in a storm show evidence of being worked on prior to glass replacement.