By T. D. Thornton
With both Turf Paradise and Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA) representatives telling the Arizona Racing Commission (AZRC) Thursday that they are now close to agreeing on a contract for an 84-date, Jan. 2-May 1 race meet, AZRC chairman Rory Goree indicated that the commission stands ready to approve the dates request, which has already been submitted to the board but was not placed on the agenda for a vote at the Oct. 8 video meeting.
Approval could come via a special AZRC session that might get scheduled before the next monthly commission meeting Nov. 12.
“The primary question is 'Can we be ready?'” Turf Paradise general manager Vincent Francia asked rhetorically during his presentation before the commissioners. “Yes. I know exactly what has to be done, and I have the staff here to get it done before the horses get here on Dec. 2.”
Leroy Gessmann, who serves as both the AZHBPA executive director and the National HBPA president, also expressed optimism. “We're hoping soon some things will be resolved,” he said. “Hopefully we're close, and we get this wrapped up soon.”
Goree said he was well aware that Turf Paradise management wanted the 2021 winter/spring dates request to be voted on during Thursday's meeting, but he explained commissioners didn't want to be put in a position of voting on any race meet until a contract has been inked.
“Yes, I did see the dates come before us to be put on the agenda,” Goree said. “[But] we don't want them on the agenda until we know we have an agreement between [Turf Paradise] and the HBPA. Then that way we know we're approving something that everyone's finally in agreement on,”
Added Francia: “It will come as no surprise I'd like to request a special session as soon as possible once those dates are ready to go before the commission, because I'm running out of time. It's not on my side right now.”
The newfound spirit of cooperation between the AZHBPA and Turf Paradise stands in sharp contrast to the acrimony-tinged AZRC meeting on Sept. 10, at which members of the state's racing community railed at Turf Paradise management and desperately implored the AZRC to take some form of action so that live racing can get back up and running in Arizona-even if that meant transferring Turf Paradise's customary block of dates to competitor Arizona Downs.
Turf Paradise ended its spring meet prematurely Mar. 14 as the COVID-19 pandemic swept the nation. In August, Turf Paradise withdrew its dates request for a traditional 2020-21 autumn-to-spring meet, citing liability concerns related to COVID-19. In between, the Arizona Downs summer meet never ran because local health officials would not extend permission to reopen under pandemic conditions.
Beyond the pandemic, a prolonged fight over off-track betting (OTB) privileges, simulcast signals, and how the horsemen's purse money can be used has been batted back and forth in the courts, in the press, and during commission meetings, clouding the future of the state's two commercial tracks.
Francia said Turf Paradise would have a two-phase approach to getting the idle plant ready for reopening. The barn area, frontside, main dirt track, and turf course all need to be put back in order. Simultaneously, all of those common areas need to be refurbished with COVID-19 safeguards in place, like those at every other track in the nation that has resumed racing during the pandemic.
One bone of AZHBPA contention that has consistently come up since Turf Paradise shut down seven months ago is that track management has allegedly sold off equipment that is essential to operating a race meet. Goree asked Francia directly what impact that might have on safely operating the facility.
“No impact whatsoever,” Francia said, although he did not detail what actually has been sold. “That equipment has nothing to do with the essential [things needed] to run a race meet. Francia then listed examples-tractors, harrows, water trucks, ambulances-of equipment that remains “on-site here at Turf. None of the essential equipment has been sold.”
Francia continued, focusing on the negotiations: “We are very close to working out all terms of agreement. We will probably continue our discussions after this commission meeting to try to finalize the last few minor things that are sticking points. But we've made a lot of progress, and I'm quite confident that we're going to get this completed.”