Trouble In (Turf) Paradise: Sale Again Called Off, '24 Meet Still Planned

Turf Paradise | Coady


For the second time in four months, a reported sale of Turf Paradise has been called off.

The track's current owner, Jerry Simms, broke the news at Friday's Arizona Racing Commission (AZRC) meeting without disclosing details or being pressed by regulators to provide any additional information.

Preparations for a planned Jan. 29-May 4 race meet are still underway, though, according to testimony from track officials, commission employees, and representatives of the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA).

The revelation that the deal was a no-go didn't seem to come as a shock to commissioners or stakeholders.

Specifics of the transaction had been shrouded in mystery and tinged with dysfunction since the outset.

At AZRC meetings in recent months, horsemen had expressed skepticism, frustration and even derision over whether Simms was working in good faith to make the sale. They had also alleged they were being kept out of the loop on key details about the future of the state's lone remaining commercial Thoroughbred track.

Simms had repeatedly denied those accusations. But it's no secret that Simms and Arizona horsemen have had an acrimonious business relationship for the better part of two decades.

Perhaps what was most bizarre about the Jan. 12 no-sale disclosure was the non-reaction from almost everyone else.

No commissioners asked Simms to elaborate on the failed deal, and when AZHBPA representatives were given their turn at the microphone to comment, they chose not to utter anything about the called-off sale. Instead they waxed glowingly about how well work for the coming race meet was progressing under Simms's stewardship.

The dialogue unfolded like this:

Friday's meeting had progressed about 35 minutes without any mention of the proposed sale, which was unusual considering the deal had previously been a focal point of discussion.

Back on Dec. 5, the AZRC had conditionally approved the '24 meet for Turf Paradise, which was to be conducted by Simms as he attempted to close on a sale of the 213-acre property to an entity known as Turf Paradise Land Trust.

On Friday, Turf Paradise general manager Vincent Francia was winding up comments about the work being completed in preparation for the meet when commissioner Linda York interjected to ask about an update on the sale, which Francia had not mentioned.

“Mr. Simms would be the one to provide an update to the commission,” Francia deferred, claiming that he didn't know if Simms was remotely listening in to the meeting to be able to comment. He offered to pass along a message to Simms, though.

A few moments later, Simms chimed in, claiming phone difficulties had at first prevented him from speaking.

Simms then took a few minutes to rail about an old feud over off-track-betting (OTB) with the now-defunct Arizona Downs, during which AZRC chairman Chuck Coolidge stepped in, asking him to stick to the current topic.

Simms continued his rant for a bit longer, then switched subjects.

“Commissioner York, right now, regarding your question about a sale? Right now there is no sale under contract. There is no deal. The deal was there before. The people never put up their money, and it just didn't happen.”

No commissioners asked why, what transpired, or what the falling-through of the deal meant for the future of Turf Paradise.

Instead, after a pause of several seconds chairman Coolidge just moved on to the next agenda item like nothing significant had just occurred.

Soon after, J. Lloyd Yother, the president of the AZHBPA, declined an opportunity to offer any sort of report when called upon to speak.

Yother deferred his time at the microphone to Leroy Gessmann, the AZHBPA's executive director, who said the Turf Paradise projects “are going slow, but they are moving forward….The racetrack, in the nine years that I've been here, is the best condition it's ever been in. For the first time in nine years, it was done properly [and] I want to thank Turf Paradise for getting a safe racetrack.”

Only later, during the public commentary portion of the meeting, did anyone briefly address the fall-through of the sale.

“That track is really not for sale,” said Stephen Nolan, a frequent critic of both Simms and the AZRC. “It's an illusion. A delusion that [Simms] is trying to portray. He won. He got his OTBs. He collects that money. He puts nothing back into the industry. That's obvious [by the condition of the property]. We need [the commission] to be proactive.”

In recent years, disagreements between the Arizona racing community and Simms have roiled in the courts and at AZRC meetings. Prolonged fights over OTB privileges, simulcast signals, and how the horsemen's purse money can be used have all been topics of heated debate.

Turf Paradise ended its most recent season in May 2023 with a different buyer doing due diligence to purchase the property. At the time, Simms said he wanted to retire to spend more time with his grandchildren.

On Aug. 1, 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.

Ten days later, Simms announced a new buyer had suddenly emerged.

The AZRC met on Sept. 28 and Oct. 12 without anyone from the new prospective buying group coming forward to speak.

But during the Nov. 9 meeting, Simms introduced a representative from Turf Paradise Land Trust while claiming the two parties were at the escrow stage of a deal. AZRC staffers indicated that a vetting process to license the new ownership group was underway, but noted that process could take months to complete.

Despite their stated misgivings about Simms and the sale, on Nov. 10 the AZHBPA board of directors voted to extend required interstate simulcasting permissions so Turf Paradise's 37 off-track betting parlors wouldn't go dark and could instead keep generating revenue for purses at the upcoming meet.

During the Dec. 5 AZRC meeting at which Turf Paradise was green-lighted for racing in '24, Simms said the sale had hit snags, but he did not elaborate on them or indicate the deal was in jeopardy.

Now fast-forward to the Jan. 12 meeting. During the tail end of the public commentary session, Simms asked for and was granted a second turn to speak.

But instead of clarifying aspects about the future of Turf Paradise, Simms only made the overall situation more cryptic by underscoring that he wanted to move on from running the racetrack.

“You know, when I get a permit to run a track for three years, it doesn't mean I have to run three years if I want to retire,” Simms said. “If a doctor gets a license to practice medicine for five years, and after three years he wants to retire, he doesn't have to practice the entire five years…

“I want this industry to flourish. But I want to retire. And I'm allowed to retire. I feel badly for trainers that need a place to run. But at a certain age, I want to retire,” Simms said.

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