Turf Paradise Approved to Run '24 Meet, Pending Sign-off by HISA Authority

Turf Paradise | Coady

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Turf Paradise received unanimous but conditional approval from the Arizona Racing Commission (AZRC) on Tuesday to conduct a Jan. 29-May 4 race meet.

The upcoming season, however, won't be run under the auspices of the new ownership group that has been reportedly trying to buy the Phoenix track for the last two months.

Instead, Turf Paradise's current owner, Jerry Simms, will still be at the helm.

Simms and Arizona horsemen have had an acrimonious business relationship for the better part of two decades.

But Simms vowed during the Dec. 5 “emergency” AZRC meeting that he will be sticking around for at least the next five months because his deal to sell the track to an entity known as Turf Paradise Land Trust has hit unspecified snags.

The conditions attached to the licensure by the AZRC have to do with Turf Paradise either complying with or getting the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act (HISA) Authority to waive its requirement that stipulates a 90-day advance notice from any track before the start of racing. In addition, the Authority still has to accredit Turf Paradise in terms of safety standards.

Rudy Casillas, the deputy director of the AZRC's racing division, said that although Simms is still free to try to close on the sale of the track (which has been under consideration by at least two different buyers this year), he explained that it would be “highly unlikely” that the commission would be able to finalize its vetting process of a new licensee before the planned end of the race meet.

“We have not received all of the required information from the potential new buyer as of yet, so I don't believe that there's going to be that type of [due diligence] complication impacting live race meet going forward,” Casillas said.

As for the HISA hurdles, Casillas added, “I cannot speak for HISA. I can't predict what they'll do, if they waive the 90 days. We're hoping that they will…. If they don't waive the 90-day advance notice, then obviously the race meet will have to start at a later time, beyond Jan. 29.”

But Casillas did add that AZRC representatives are speaking with HISA Authority executives who are in the state this week for the Global Symposium on Racing hosted by the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program in Tucson. Casillas said that in those conversations, “HISA has indicated that they will definitely try to work with the [AZRC] and move this forward.”

Unlike at recent AZRC meetings where their representatives spoke at length about the confusion and chaos of trying to get the sport back on track in Arizona, no one from the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA) testified during Tuesday's meeting.

Simms, however, gave his side of the story, portraying himself as a savior, of sorts.

“I decided to run this meet because it was just too much impact on the stakeholders, too many people's lives being disrupted,” Simms said. “And I was hoping that my deal would have moved ahead, but it's not gone ahead. So I put my retirement on the back burner and decided to do it…

“We're complying with HISA. We hope to have HISA out this week [and] hopefully they won't hold us to that 90-day period of time,” Simms said.

“HISA has their own criteria. And so hopefully they'll give us their approval. I [don't have] any control over that. But I will tell you, with absolute certainty, if this meet is approved and we run the meet, it will finish. Even if the track is sold, whoever buys it will have to finish it or I will finish it.”

Back on Nov. 9, Simms told the AZRC that the ownership group that wants to buy the currently closed Turf Paradise was at the escrow stage of closing on the sale.

Turf Paradise ended its racing season back in May with a different buyer doing due diligence to purchase the property. Then 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.

Then 10 days later, Simms announced a new buyer had suddenly emerged with a desire to purchase the 213-acre property and save racing at the 67-year-old track.

In recent years, disagreements between the Arizona racing community and Simms have roiled in the courts and at racing commission meetings. An extraordinarily long pandemic closure and prolonged fights over off-track betting privileges, simulcast signals, and how the horsemen's purse money can be used have all been topics of heated debate.

Turf Paradise has also been plagued by safety issues in recent seasons, and as recently as the Oct. 12 commission meeting, Simms and AZHBPA officers sparred over whether or not extensive repairs were needed for the main track rail.

But reports made at a subsequent commission meeting Nov. 9 did note progress to the facility's upkeep, such as the turf course well pump being fixed and the grass getting much-needed watering, seeding and fertilizations.

A release posted on social media by Turf Paradise after the commission's vote noted that the track and AZHBPA have signed a contract that calls for Monday-Thursday racing. Horses will be allowed into the stables Dec. 18, with training to start Dec. 26.

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