Simms Portrays Turf Paradise Sale as Lifeline, but Arizona Horsemen Grow Skeptical

Turf Paradise | Coady

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A report that a purchase-and-sale agreement for the currently closed Turf Paradise is just days away from being inked was met with skepticism, frustration and even derision from horsemen at Thursday's Arizona Racing Commission meeting.

Although the track's owner, Jerry Simms, framed the ongoing negotiations as a lifeline for Thoroughbred racing in a state that currently has no operational commercial track, J. Lloyd Yother, the president of the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA), said that Simms's oft-stated expectations of a new owner being able to conduct a race meet as soon as January are unrealistic, underscoring that, “my horsemen are getting pretty restless, and their livelihoods are at stake.”

Complicating matters for everyone is that the prospective deal has been shrouded in mystery since the buyer was first publicly named Sept. 28.

For the second commission meeting in as many weeks, no representatives of that would-be buying group appeared to speak about their plans for keeping racing alive at Turf Paradise during the Oct. 12 online-only meeting.

In fact, the name of that buying group–Turf Paradise Trust, LLC, whose principal is said to Frank Nickens–didn't even get mentioned by any party during Thursday's often-testy, back-and-forth testimony. Most references were generic, as in “the buyer.”

The Turf Paradise sale wasn't even officially on the meeting's agenda, either. But it was by far the dominant topic.

Commissioners largely just listened to Simms, the horsemen, and representatives from non-operational Arizona Downs spar verbally, and the board concluded the meeting without voting on or outlining any direct actions that would bring clarity to an increasingly confusing and controversial inflection point.

AZRC chairman Chuck Coolidge said toward the end of the heated discussion that the commission remained hopeful that “everything expedites in the right way.”

Other stakeholders used quite a bit more emotion when voicing their opinions on the Turf Paradise predicament, which stems from a months-in-the-making deal to sell the track falling apart on Sept. 18 and Simms announcing 10 days later that a new buyer had suddenly emerged with a desire to buy the 213-acre property and save the 67-year-old track from the wrecking ball.

“The state of Arizona horse racing is ridiculous. It's an absolute nightmare. Horsemen get fed information, some of it legitimate, some of it rumors,” said owner and trainer Cynthia George. “We're literally like children being used as pawns in a divorce battle [and] it's just absolutely unbelievable that horsemen get torn in every single direction…

“All these people want horsemen to have faith in the system,” George continued, “But what has really happened besides a lot of hot air? I don't know how else to explain it. Nothing real has happened…. We're trying to make life decisions. We're people with families…. And none of it is right. It should be completely unethical. It's fraudulent to keep posting media propaganda saying that Turf Paradise is going to open in January, when you can clearly go to Turf Paradise and see the walls falling off the grandstand.”

George's comments came after Simms testified that the deal was very close to coming together, and he repeated several times–like he had also stated on multiple occasions at the Sept. 28 meeting–that horsemen should be aware that he turned down offers of more money so he could try to make a sale to someone who wants to keep the sport going at Turf Paradise instead of developing the Phoenix property.

“I would say the contract should be signed this week. Could be [Friday]. Could be Monday or Tuesday,” Simms said. “There's just some other refinements to an agreement that have to be made. But I would say next week, for sure, and we'd have a signed contract. We already have a signed letter of agreement. This would be the purchase-and-sale agreement.”

Simms stated–but did not elaborate on–the fact that the buying group has had to change lawyers in the middle of these hectic negotiations.

In recent years, the relationship between the Arizona horsemen and Simms has been acrimonious. An extraordinarily long pandemic closure, multiple racetrack safety issues, and prolonged fights over off-track betting (OTB) privileges, simulcast signals, and how the horsemen's purse money can be used have roiled in the courts and at racing commission meetings.

Turf Paradise ended its racing season back in May with a separate buyer doing due diligence to purchase the property. But on Aug. 1, seven weeks before that sale was publicly called off, Simms announced the track wouldn't be opening in November as scheduled for its traditional six-month meet.

Arizona's horsemen have been dealing with heightened anxiety ever since.

“I understand it takes time and it's a big project to [arrive at] an escrow date and closing. But we're on such a tight time frame that my horsemen and my board are really uneasy,” Yother said. “This will be two weeks since we gave [Turf Paradise] the extension for the OTBs to run through Nov. 12, with the caveat that we can cut the signal at any time if something's not moving forward, and it seems to be at a stalemate.”

Even though Turf Paradise backed out of live racing for this autumn, Yother said the AZHBPA still gave its required permission for Turf Paradise to continue operating its 37 OTB outlets because the horsemen were led to believe those revenues would be used by Simms for repairs and upkeep that would allow the new buyer to begin a race meet in January.

“In the meantime, Turf Paradise has not started any work on repairs to the track to get ready for a meet,” Yother said. “Mr. [Vincent] Francia, the general manager of Turf Paradise, has expressed that he could possibly get ready in 60 days, but it would more likely be 90 days to get the track ready, to get horses in there. [So] we're not even close to being able to run in January. I think, in my interpretation, it's going to be either February or even later unless something happens between now and then.”

Yother said a number of outfits currently racing at Albuquerque Downs initially believed they would be allowed to remain at that New Mexico racino for a short while after the end of the Oct. 29 meet to keep their horses in training for Turf Paradise, but that is no longer an option.

“They've told them now they can't stay and they've got to go,” Yother said. “When Albuquerque's over, they've got to have a place to go. All we're trying to do is save racing in Arizona and try to find a place that we can bring our horsemen to and have a race meet. But [the Turf Paradise deal] is just being kicked down the road and kicked down the road, [and] it's at the point now where we have to do something or go to Plan B.”

Simms disputed that 60-90 day time frame for getting the track ready as “not an accurate number.” The dirt track just needs to be opened up, he said, and the turf course only needs a rye grass planting atop its current root system.

“There's nothing that has to be done to the barn area for the horsemen to come in,” Simms said. “Those barns are the same way they are now as when you left them” in May. “We're ready to go.”

Yother then responded with more specific list of repairs, including extensive work to the main track rail. Simms then disputed that needed to be done, claiming all the fencing had been fixed last spring.

“I'm just telling you that my horsemen and my board are extremely upset that nothing has taken place at this time. No good faith, nothing that's been happening at the track,” Yother said.

David Auther, a co-owner of Arizona Downs, wanted horsemen and commissioners to know that his track could provide the “Plan B” that Yother referred to.

“We still want to have our meet in May, or sooner, depending on what happens with Turf,” Auther said.

Arizona Downs didn't apply for a June-through-September race meet this year because of financial difficulties. The track formerly operated as Yavapai Downs between 2000 and 2010, when the ownership at that time filed for bankruptcy. It currently faces a Nov. 2 state administrative hearing on whether or not the AZRC should revoke its permit to operate because it hasn't been conducting live racing.

Permitting problems aside, Yother told the commission there is another problem that would give horsemen pause about working with Arizona Downs: He said both that non-operational track and Rillito Park, which traditionally runs weekends from early February through early April, are both in arrears for overdue purse money.

“They've been [put] on notice that if they do not get the horsemen's purse money paid, then we're not negotiating a new contract with them,” Yother said. “We have to get paid. We can't keep using our money when we're struggling and not getting paid on time.”

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