By Dan Ross
The Arizona Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA) would be amenable to Turf Paradise’s latest proposal to conduct a live 2020-21 race meet as long as certain conditions of their own are met, according to a letter written by AZHBPA president Bob Hutton dated Friday and obtained by the TDN.
“Because we are the heart and soul of horse racing in Arizona, we offer you all we have to help make Turf Paradise the venue for racing it can be and once was,” Hutton wrote, pointing to the horsemen’s horses, approval rights for signals and purse money. However, “there are conditions,” he added, arguing that the condition of the facility and grounds “gives us pause as to the genuineness of your proposal.”
The letter is in response to a missive Turf Paradise sent to the horsemen Thursday, detailing a proposed live meet next year that will run Jan. 2 through May 1.
For that proposed meet to go ahead, however, Turf Paradise management listed in the letter a number of caveats, namely that $2.1 million of disputed purse account monies be returned to Turf Paradise, and that the Arizona horsemen form a new representative organization or for the current AZHBPA board members and their executive director to resign.
These purse account funds have been the latest bone of contention in a long-running dispute between Arizona horsemen and management of Turf Paradise. Track general manager Vince Francia previously told the TDN that these funds contractually belong to Turf Paradise for the horsemen that race there.
The horsemen, however, argue that they ultimately wield control over the purse account, as per a prior arbitrated settlement. Indeed, earlier this week a widely circulated email stated that the AZHBPA has secured a good chunk of this money and placed it into a trust to pay purses if and when racing resumes elsewhere.
Francia told the TDN that he has advised facility owner Jerry Simms that the AZHBPA’s written rebuttal is an “olive branch” to conduct negotiations, and that all conditions are on the table.
The main conditions outlined in the AZHBPA’s Friday response are as follows:
“The first condition is that you, Mr. Simms [Turf Paradise owner], respect the Horsemen’s choice of representation and refrain from your attempt to tell us, the Horsemen, who we can have as our representatives. Respect us, our choices, our leadership, our solidarity, and our industry.
“Here is the second condition: Honor the arbitration agreement and allow the AHBPA control of the horsemen’s purse account, (with the understanding that it will be used for purses during Turf Paradise’s live meet). Additionally, reimburse AHBPA purse money from March 2020, when you killed the contract, to present, what the state law requires: 50% of the OTB revenue, when a contract is not in place.
“This takes us to the third condition: The track must be safe for the horses and people. Right now, the main track, the turf track and the training track are not fit to run on. The backside is full of trenches, power boxes with wires exposed, and the roads and bridle path are in terrible condition. The barns are, as always, dilapidated. And the clubhouse is uninhabitable. No doubt, to meet this condition, a safety inspection will be required.
“If you meet these conditions, we will fully engage in arriving at a new contract. Suffice to say, efforts have been made to resolve our differences, but when you remove the AHBPA from our mutual account so that we, the Horsemen, cannot access our own purse funds, that should have been the end of our efforts to revitalize racing at our venue. Yet, here we are, offering to race again. Join us by respecting our choices and the laws that govern our industry. Then, both being reasonable, we can enter into a new contract.”
The AZHBPA’s latest overture, said Francia, is a “positive” one. “Mr. Hutton is offering an olive branch to discuss everything, including the two terms that we put forth. Something we both want is to have live racing reactivated here the day after New Year,” he said.
“I hope there’s resolution for both of our sides,” Francia added, “because it effects the livelihood of thousands of people in an industry that has a very ingrained attachment to this state. There’s 65 years of memories here.”
Francia also struck a more personal note. “When all this is said and done, I grieve the loss of friendship with Bob Hutton. We were good friends, we enjoyed each other’s company,” he said. “But that friendship has unfortunately been lost. And I understand.”