By Dan Ross
This week saw the final horses stabled at Turf Paradise leave the premises as the facility closes its doors for the summer beneath an array of question marks dangling over the industry in the state.
For one, the horses weren't the only Turf Paradise residents to vacate the facility this week. At the beginning of May, track management sent the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) a letter giving the organization 30 days to “remove its belongings” from its Turf Paradise office and to “remove the trailer (medical trailer) from Turf Paradise property.”
All HBPA equipment would “ordinarily have remained there for the summer,” explained Bob Hutton, president of the Arizona HBPA, who said his organization removed these items Wednesday morning.
“So, what's the plan here?” Hutton said. “The answer to the question could be one of two things. Number one, they have no plan on running ever again. And number two, they did it just out of spite.”
When asked about the intent behind the letter, Vince Francia, Turf Paradise general manager, said, “we asked them to remove their property from the premises, and I believe they have done so.”
When it comes to the future of live racing at Turf Paradise, Francia said that “our intent and hope” is to have another racing season.
“We are hopeful of getting some form of gaming [legislation passed], which would complement our racing operation here,” Francia said. “Gaming would not only be beneficial to Turf [Paradise], but to the horsemen and their purse structure, and so, we are hoping for that.”
These developments form just the latest chapter in a protracted stand-off between the horsemen and Turf Paradise management. Earlier in the year, a simulcasting dispute led The Stronach Group's Monarch to pull its signal from the state, dealing a sizeable blow to the industry's coffers.
The crux of the issue surrounded Arizona Downs, one of three tracks in the state. When Arizona Downs reopened for live racing in 2019, Monarch sent its signal to the track itself but not to the track's network of off-track betting sites (OTBs). In contrast, Monarch distributed its signal to Turf Paradise and its network of some 60 OTBs.
Near the start of March, the HBPA voted to withdraw the Turf Paradise signal from all Stronach Group affiliates. Before that could happen, however, the Covid-19 pandemic erupted, and the operators of Turf Paradise gave the horsemen days to vacate the premises–a move the facility later shied away from under pressure from the HBPA.
Another hurdle standing before the industry in Arizona concerns the issue of simulcasting signals. According to Arizona racing commissioner, Rory Goree, the state's suite of OTBs are allowed to open at the end of the week.
But all simulcasting signals need to be approved by the commission before they can be beamed into the state, and right now, the commission is one person short of a quorum needed to make those decisions, explained Goree.
“Without a quorum we can't even meet,” said Goree, who added that Turf Paradise's decision in March to cancel live racing completely could have been debated by the commission, had a quorum existed at that time.
“That technically should have been something that would have required commission approval,” said Goree. “Who knows how the commission would have ruled–maybe we would have had some discussion about continuing racing but without people in the stands.”
Goree said that it was possible the governor could name a new commissioner this week. “I'm hearing that the governor could name somebody today,” he said. “But I haven't had confirmation, nor have I seen a name yet.”
Then comes the issue of live racing in Arizona's immediate future. According to Tom Auther, an owner and partner in Arizona Downs, his facility is in shape for horses to stable and train there, but he hasn't yet received the green light to open doors from the Yavapai County health department.
“We just have not got any direction about whether we can let anybody up at the track,” Auther said, adding that the same uncertainty surrounds the possibility of live racing.
“We can't run without fans–we don't have a big enough export,” said Auther. “I've started to think the right thing to do is hit the reset button and let's have a hell of a year next year. It's just so chaotic right now.”
In the meantime, several Arizona-based trainers have voiced frustration with some of the decisions Turf Paradise made during the Covid-19 pandemic. “It's been horrible for a lot of people,” said trainer Mike Chambers, who sits on the Arizona HBPA board of directors.
Between the suspension of live racing at the facility in March and the end of April, the horsemen and the track shared the costs of keeping the facility open for training, while the HBPA assumed all costs of keeping the stable area open for horses from May 1 onwards.
Some feel as though the track could have done more to help the trainers, many of whom have been hit hard financially with the suspension of live racing.
“He has no respect for the people who put on a show for him,” said Chambers, pointing to how Jerry Simms, the owner of Turf Paradise, had donated $1 million to the state's fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
In response, Francia said that “I'm not sure I could assemble the right stream of words with anyone who could find fault with someone donating their own money–that's not Turf [Paradise] money, that's Mr. Simms's personal money–to fight this virus.”TheT