By T. D. Thornton
If the saga over the supposedly pending sale of now-closed Turf Paradise was a soap opera, its title would surely be “AZ the World Turns.” The state's racing is hanging in the balance amid an increasingly acrimonious long-term feud between the track's owner and horsemen, leading one trainer at last Thursday's Arizona Racing Commission meeting to liken the horse community's predicament to children “being used as pawns in a divorce battle” by vindictive parents on the verge of a nasty split.
Although TDN's original story about that Oct. 12 commission meeting didn't have the space to cover all aspects of the ongoing bickering among the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA) and Turf Paradise's owner, Jerry Simms, one subplot is worth further mention here, because its irony resonates at the federal level (and perhaps soon all the way to the United States Supreme Court).
Lloyd Yother, the president of the AZHBPA, alleged on Thursday that Simms is so far behind in making necessary repairs and upkeep that a new, incoming owner would never be able to open Turf Paradise for a race meet in January, a target date that Simms has said is perfectly reasonable as he attempts to execute a purchase-and-sale agreement with a buyer who has thus far refused to speak publicly about the deal at Arizona commission meetings.
In particular, Yother and Simms sparred verbally over the specific issue of whether or not extensive repairs are needed for the main track railing, with Yother claiming the fencing is not up to spec and Simms countering that Turf Paradise had fixed problems related to a non-compliance warning issued by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety (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…”
Darrell Haire, the western regional manager for The Jockeys' Guild, told commissioners on Thursday that the Turf Paradise rail during the 2022-23 season “was patched up the whole meet. And I don't know what condition it's in now, because it's just getting older. It's just deteriorated. So I believe that it has to be replaced. The patchwork they did was finished the last week of the meet, and it was supposed to be done at the beginning of the [last] meet.”
Haire's points are well-taken. But to understand where things got interesting in this particular argument, you have to widen the lens to encompass the HBPA's 2 1/2-year-old legal quest to kill off HISA over alleged constitutional violations. Keep that court fight in mind when considering what Yother next suggested at that meeting:
“I have a recommendation that maybe we ought to ask HISA to come back in and take a look at the track, to maybe get a step ahead of some of the delays that we're encountering now,” Yother said. “If we get HISA to send somebody in to look at the track [we can] see what's going to have to be done before anybody will be able to race, whether it be current owner, future owner, or whatever.”
Yes, that's the president of an HBPA affiliate, whose own organization–plus its national parent and 11 other HBPA affiliates–have written in court documents that the HISA Authority functions like “a private police department” with sweeping powers that equate to “oligarchic tyranny,” now calling upon that very same Authority to intervene when the AZHBPA needs an entity with federal clout to advocate for its own cause.
This unlikely juxtaposition of the AZHBPA asking the HISA Authority for help while it's simultaneously trying to eradicate that regulator and its enabling law would be stunning were it not overshadowed by the truly dire overall predicament that Arizona racing now faces.
'Notion' is 'Great' in two states
Saturday's win by Witty in the $100,000 Maryland Million Turf Sprint S. over 5 1/2 furlongs at Laurel Park extended an impressive streak set by Great Notion, the state's top stallion by progeny earnings every year since 2018 (and the leader so far this season). His offspring have now won at least one Maryland Million Day stakes in 14 runnings of that event, dating to 2010.
But the Maryland Million win wasn't even the biggest payday for a Great Notion-sired runner in a state-restricted stakes on Saturday. Later that evening, Coastal Mission splashed home by 5 3/4 lengths in the $300,000 Sam Huff West Virginia Breeders' Classic at Charles Town. Despite racing beyond seven furlongs for the first time, the 4-year-old was pounded to 1-5 favoritism and delivered by wiring the field over the three-turn, nine-furlong distance.
Owned, bred and trained by Jeff Runco in partnership with his wife, Susan (Coleswood Farm), the win was the sixth straight for Coastal Mission. The gray has won nine of his last 10 dating to December, with all of the victories coming at Charles Town. His lone defeat was a fifth back in March when the gelding ventured to Laurel for a stakes engagement. In West Virginia, he's scored in state-bred stakes, open allowances, and also in the open-company $250,000 Russell Road S. last time out.
Coastal Mission's lifetime mark stands at 11-3-1 from 16 starts, with $572,728 in earnings.
Bred, owned, and trained by Elizabeth Merryman, Witty is a 4-year-old half-brother to last year's GI Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint victress Caravel (Mizzen Mast). She was also bred and initially trained by Merryman prior to joining trainer Brad Cox for owners Qatar Racing, Marc Detampel and Madaket Stables.
On Sunday, the 6-year-old Caravel just missed giving her dam, Zeezee Zoomzoom, two six-figure stakes winners on the weekend. She ran second as the odds-on favorite in the GII Franklin S. at Keeneland.
Jockeying for Graded Stakes
Flavien Prat won that aforementioned Franklin S., closing the gap to one victory in the North American jockey race for most graded stakes wins in 2023. Heading into the lucrative Breeders' Cup championships, this battle is shaping up as a two-rider run-off, with Irad Ortiz, Jr., (36) narrowly ahead of Prat (35).
Through Sunday's races, the next closest jockeys are Juan Hernandez (24), Luis Saez (21), then Tyler Gaffalione and Joel Rosario (20 each).
Ortiz has ridden in 11 more graded stakes than Prat. Interestingly, Hernandez is the top percentage rider among the leaders, winning graded stakes at a 31% clip from only 77 chances (everyone else mentioned has ridden in at least 121 graded stakes).
Last year Ortiz topped Prat 50-42.