By T. D. Thornton
The current Turf Paradise owner is courting a new buyer who just emerged last week as a potential savior for keeping racing alive at the state's otherwise-closing cornerstone track.
On Thursday, the Arizona Racing Commission (AZRC) voted to extend Turf Paradise's simulcasting privileges through Nov. 12 while regulators commenced a due diligence vetting process that could greenlight the sale.
The stated goal among stakeholders is to start a race meet in January under new ownership at the Phoenix oval.
The current management announced back on Aug. 1 that the 67-year-old track wouldn't be opening for live racing as scheduled in November.
The principal buyer in the deal was named as Frank Nickens by Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA) president Lloyd Yother.
At a different point in the meeting, Turf Paradise general manager Vincent Francia said Nickens hadn't been able to attend the online-only Sept. 28 meeting, so he instead read a prepared statement on Nickens's behalf that Francia said was signed by Richard Moore, the chief executive officer for an entity called Turf Paradise Trust, LLC.
But other than disclosing the names of the principals and their potential buying group, virtually nothing was discussed at the meeting regarding their business or racing backgrounds.
The name of that limited liability company is not currently listed with the Arizona Corporations Commission, although it is possible the deal is coming together so quickly that the registration does not yet appear in the government's database.
“A lot of people have to understand that this guy [just] came forth [Sept. 20],” Yother said. “I do not know Mr. Nickens. I have no connections to Mr. Nickens. And all I can go on is what he discussed with the contract group with the HBPA.”
Yother said Nickens met Tuesday with AZHBPA representatives for several hours, then spoke again at an AZHBPA board meeting on Wednesday, at which the horsemen gave the prospective buyer their support to approve temporary simulcast permissions commencing Oct. 1.
That permission from the horsemen is necessary so that Turf Paradise's advance-deposit wagering agreements and 37 off-track betting parlors under won't go dark after Sept. 30 and can still generate purse account money.
“This all had happened in the last three or four days,” Yother said. “But it's the only 'olive branch,' if you will, that we could grab ahold of at this time to keep the OTBs open and running. All we're looking for is someone to run live racing in the state of Arizona and to save the industry.”
A planned sale of Turf Paradise to a different buyer, CT Realty, was first made public Apr. 12. At that time, TDN reported that racing was expected to continue there only as a placeholder for several more seasons while new uses for the 67-year-old venue went through the planning, approval, and construction stages.
About a month later, CT Realty announced that it would consider keeping racing going on a longer-term basis if it could successfully lobby the state legislature to approve historical horse racing machines or some other form of gaming at the track.
But on Sept. 18, Jerry Simms, who has owned Turf Paradise for 23 years, made it public that the deal to CT Realty had fallen through, and that the track and its simulcasting outlets would close Sept. 30.
The Nickens-led LLC buying group emerged immediately thereafter, Simms said.
“We've entered into a letter of intent. A purchase contract is being sent [Thursday] morning,” Simms said. “I believe the [AZRC on Wednesday] sent him his papers for his licensing and permit,” Simms said.
As Francia explained, “The plan is to open a live race meet in early January, and that is what we are all aiming for.”
Simms has been on the record since 2020 as saying that Turf Paradise operates at a “huge negative” financially.
Simms said several other potential buyers wanted the 213-acre property after the CT Realty deal blew up, but he underscored that he wants to sell to the Nickens group because that entity wants to keep the sport going instead of redeveloping the track for some other purpose.
“I had several buyers for the track. And I chose the buyer that I signed an agreement and [am] moving ahead with because he plans to run racing,” Simms said.
“He's very much an enthusiast; wants to have racing, is not interested in [redevelopment],” Simms said. “I want to save the industry, the jobs. I could have gotten even perhaps more money with one of the other buyers, [but I wanted} to save racing.”
In recent years, the relationship between the Arizona racing community and Simms has been acrimonious. An extraordinarily long pandemic closure, multiple racetrack safety issues, and prolonged fights over off-track betting privileges, simulcast signals, and how the horsemen's purse money can be used have roiled in the courts and at racing commission meetings.
“The purchase and sale, he's ready to move ahead,” Simms said. “He said he could close in 60 days.”
Simms added that if the deal doesn't get done by January, or if the AZRC hasn't completed its vetting process, he would be open to some sort of leasing arrangement that would enable a race meet to begin in 2024 even if the sale isn't official.
“Hopefully the [AZRC] will have enough time to do their due diligence. But the purchase and sale, he's ready to move ahead.”
The prepared statement from the Nickens entity that Francia read into the record stated that the new LLC is “working towards the purchase of Turf Paradise racecourse. We plan to keep live racing and to bring this facility into a new era [and continue] horse racing for the benefit of everyone involved. We feel the preservation of such a wonderfully historical facility and the preservation of thousands of jobs horse racing offers can carry the legacy of Turf Paradise on for another 50 years. We plan to completely redevelop the surrounding land, all for the benefit of horse racing. We look forward to a new, bright future for everyone at Turf Paradise.”
Beyond the horsemen-vs.-Simms feuding that has hovered over Arizona racing like a dark cloud for years, Turf Paradise and Arizona Downs, 82 miles north in Prescott Valley, have continually been at odds over race dates and the control of simulcasting signals.
Arizona Downs didn't apply for a June-through-September race meet this year because of financial difficulties. It has been mentioned as being up for sale or lease for well over a year, with 1/ST Racing and Gaming often rumored (but never confirmed) to be a potential buyer.
Arizona Downs formerly operated as Yavapai Downs between 2000 and 2010, when the ownership at that time filed for bankruptcy.
David Auther, a co-owner of Arizona Downs, questioned at Thursday's meeting why Turf Paradise would be getting simulcasting privileges even though its current ownership has stated it wants out of the live racing business.
“We need to consider enforcing the statute that is on the books that says each track gets its signal during its meet, and only during its meet,” Auther said.
“Having said that, we congratulate Turf Paradise on finding this buyer,” Auther continued, expressing slightly sarcastic incredulity about the prospect of “a guy that nobody knew of a week ago who's going to come in the door and pay hundreds of millions and have a contract in four days.”
Added Auther: “I'm sure that somebody's going to vet this. And I have a hunch the vetting won't take very long [and] we'll all know how to proceed here.”
TDN phoned Auther after the meeting and left a voicemail asking if he'd elaborate on why he didn't think the Nickens group's vetting process would take long. No callback was received in time for this story.
Nor did Francia, of Turf Paradise, return a message left by TDN asking for details about the deal and the background on who, exactly, the buying group is.
As AZRC chair Chuck Coolidge quipped at one point during Thursday's meeting, “It's not a traditional Arizona Racing Commission meeting without the two tracks going against each other, as always.”