By Dan Ross
The upcoming fall race meet at Turf Paradise, scheduled to run Nov. 5 through May 7, hangs in the balance over equine safety concerns after another contentious Arizona Racing Commission Meeting, Thursday.
The Arizona horsemen, headed by the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA), currently refuse to sign the race-meet contract until a set of track maintenance upgrades, along with various other welfare and management-related requests, have been met.
These concerns spring from a 2020-2021 Turf Paradise race-meet marred by a high number of equine fatalities.
“We would like a clean and safe facility,” said AZHBPA president, Bob Hutton. Until Turf Paradise is willing to comply with its statutory safety obligations, “the HBPA does not support running a meet there this fall,” he added.
Representatives for Turf Paradise argued that the Arizona HBPA's requests cannot be met, and that some of the blame for the high equine fatality rate should rest with the horsemen.
“I don't go down the shedrow and say, 'you ought to have better horses and you wouldn't have as many breakdowns,'” said Turf Paradise owner, Jerry Simms, before adding that an agreement with the horsemen isn't necessary for the facility to conduct a race-meet this fall.
“We can run without a contract,” Simms stated.
In a July 30th letter to Turf Paradise, the Arizona HBPA listed 25 detailed safety issues and broader management concerns, the primary one being track surface quality.
“The condition that both tracks were in last year were will be unacceptable for the upcoming meet,” the letter stated, before asking that Mick Peterson, director of the Racetrack Safety Program, be brought in to examine the surfaces.
“Too many horses last year were euthanized or injured to the point they could no longer race,” the letter added.
The other 24 demands in the letter include upgrades and repairs to the backstretch, grandstand and clubhouse, along with another track veterinarian. The HBPA takes issue with current Turf Paradise veterinarian, Dr. Verlin Jones. “HBPA will pay 50% as long as it is not Dr. Jones,” the letter states.
“This racetrack last year was in the worst condition I've ever seen,” said trainer Kevin Eikleberry, at Thursday's commission meeting. “This can't happen again.”
According to Turf Paradise general manager, Vince Francia, he's listening.
A “firm” has already been hired to remove the track cushion so as to examine the limestone base, Francia said. “It's going to take a week's worth of work,” he added.
Francia also took umbridge with the horsemen for sharing on social media an assortment of damning pictures showing various parts of Turf Paradise in states of disrepair and dilapidation.
Francia argued that the 54 days between now and the scheduled start of the fall meet is sufficient to bring the track up to code.
“Guys, you're getting a little silly,” he said, urging the AZHBPA to the negotiation table. “The door to my office is open,” he said.
The commissioners chastised the stakeholders for negotiating the contract during the meeting rather than in a private forum.
“I dread every single meeting here,” lamented commissioner Chuck Coolidge, noting the contentious relationship between Turf Paradise and the horsemen's group. “One thing the commission sees often is a lot of rock-throwing by all parties.”
This isn't the first time Arizona has been under the spotlight for its equine welfare record. Rising equine fatality rates prompted the commission to conduct a report into equine safety the 2017-2018 season.
Turf Paradise doesn't make its fatality data public on the Jockey Club's Equine Injury Database.
Last week, the TDN asked the Arizona Department of Gaming for statewide equine fatality statistics beginning at the start of 2018. The request is currently being processed.
Friday, Arizona racing commission vice chairman Rory Goree contacted TDN to add that the commission intends to hold a special vote on Turf Paradise's proposed 2021-2022 race-dates before next month's scheduled meeting. That vote could occur as soon as next Monday, he said.
If the commission votes to award Turf Paradise its proposed dates, this still leaves the open-ended question as to whether or not the Arizona HBPA will sign a race-meet contract with the facility.
With that in mind, Goree emphasized the key role Turf Paradise plays for “year-round racing in Arizona,” and urged both parties to continue negotiations.