By Dan Ross
After the operators of Turf Paradise announced suddenly over the weekend that racing was suspended and that trainers stabled there had until March 28 to vacate the premises as a result of the coronavirus, a compromise has been reached keeping the track open to training until May 1, with the doors to shut May 9.
As part of the negotiations between the Arizona Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and Turf Paradise management, the HBPA will pay half of the expenses incurred for track maintenance while horses remain training there until the start of May.
According to Bob Hutton, president of the Arizona HBPA, his organization has also agreed to allow all incoming simulcast signals into Arizona to Turf Paradise’s network of Off-Track Betting parlors (OTBs) through the end of the year.
“I think they’re very relieved that they have somewhere to stay for the next 45 days,” said Hutton, about the mood among the Arizona trainers. “I think everybody’s minds were eased last night. They were able to sleep because they were in desperation, panic mode.”
Vince Francia, Turf Paradise general manager, said that, while the track had considered remaining open for live racing-minus the crowds, federal and state recommendations about limiting large gatherings essentially ruled that option out.
“We have 1000 people on site here. They’re not fans–they’re connected with the racing industry,” he said. “That’s why we can’t re-initiative racing at this time.”
When asked whether the latest federal recommendation about limiting gatherings of more than 10 people would impact Turf Paradise’s OTB network, Francia said that “we’re well aware” the OTB’s could be affected.
“It’s not so much what we will do,” he added. “We have to comply with what the governor and state recommend or orders.”
The announcement over the weekend came after the Arizona HBPA sent a letter last week to the Arizona Department of Gaming, asking that they withdraw the Turf Paradise signal from all The Stronach Group (TSG) affiliates-the latest development in a months-long feud between an arm of TSG tasked with distributing the company’s signal and the Arizona Department of Gaming.
Though the compromise has afforded Arizona trainers some stability in the near-term, major question marks remain about where they will go at the beginning of May, especially if the impacts from the coronavirus are still reverberating through the racing industry. One possibility is Arizona Downs, formerly known as Yavapai Downs, which reopened for live racing in 2019.
According to Tom Auther, an Arizona Downs owner and partner, there’s a possibility the track could conduct live racing this summer. However, before the track can open its doors to horsemen this summer, approval would need to be given by Yavapai County, with whom the track is currently in talks.
However, Auther stressed how the “fluidity” of the situation prevented him from offering more concrete answers. “With what’s going on, we just don’t know what to say to anybody. Are all the tracks going to be closed until June, or later than June? Will our OTB network have any content to sell?” he said. “It sounds crazy, but we just don’t know what to say other than to keep everybody informed on a day-to-day basis.”
Trainer Mike Chambers reiterated Hutton’s statement that the extended training period has afforded trainers temporary peace of mind. “There’s just been a lot of stress on everybody on the backside because there just aren’t that many places that are open,” he said. “It’s just been a real mess for everybody concerned.”
Indeed, Canadian trainer Jared Brown told the TDN that the abruptness of the announcement over the weekend has made him think twice about returning to Turf Paradise when live racing resumes at the track, and he has already considered locating to Texas next winter.
“I was pretty worried the other day,” said Brown, who operates a string of about 12 horses. “It takes us a minimum five days just to get the paperwork to be able to head north. When you’ve got multiple loads to make, plus a trip for your house trailer and everything else you’ve got down here, it was pretty shocking, to say the least.”