By Dan Ross
Ongoing tensions between the management of Turf Paradise and Arizona-based horsemen is placing the upcoming 2020-2021 meet under a cloud of uncertainty. Last week, Turf Paradise released a press release detailing plans to push back its opening day from Oct. 17 to Friday, Nov. 27. The revised dates meant an overall reduction in live race days from 133 to 110.
“We are working with AZHBPA [Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association] president Bob Hutton as to a date when the horses can begin to arrive in the stable area,” said track general manager Vincent Francia, in the release.
According to Hutton, his organization emailed last Thursday the operators of Turf Paradise a list of 17 questions and concerns surrounding such issues as the multi-year agreement that the HPBA entered into with Turf Paradise, stable area renovations, and contingency plans in the event of a second wave of COVID-19 infections this winter, including a promise not to close the track prior to the end of the scheduled meet.
When Turf Paradise suddenly closed its doors earlier this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, track management gave the horsemen days to vacate the premises–a move the facility later shied away from.
The response to the 17 emailed questions, however, failed to allay the Arizona horsemen's concerns, said Hutton. As such, he said that he advised trainers “to make up their own mind” about whether to stable and race at Turf Paradise when the facility opens its doors once again.
“But my recommendation would be to, based on the track not being able to guarantee that they'll run the entire meet, then you'll probably need to make other plans,” said Hutton, who added that he'll be sending his horses to alternate tracks this winter.
TDN attempted to reach Francia by email and by phone Tuesday, but did not receive a response before publication.
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 track was closed due to the onset of the global pandemic.
When Turf Paradise closed its doors at the beginning of May, track management sent the Arizona 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.” Ordinarily, all HBPA equipment would have remained at the facility during the summer, said Hutton.
According to Hutton, Turf Paradise failed to answer HBPA concerns about whether the organization would be permitted office space at the track during the upcoming meet.
The two parties appear to agree on some things, however. Turf Paradise's proposed Nov. 27 starting date, detailed in last week's press release, would have jeopardized the various sales stakes and Arizona bred races that typically occur at the end of October and the beginning of November, said Hutton.
But Turf Paradise agreed to a compromise, said Hutton–a Nov. 1 stating date for the meet. “That would be the only thing we agree upon,” he said.
The next Arizona Racing Commission meeting is slated for Aug. 13.