By Dan Ross
In a special meeting Monday morning, the Arizona Racing Commission formally approved the proposed 2021-2022 race dates for Turf Paradise–Nov. 5 through May 7–but hard practical questions remain over what participation at that meet could look like due to an ongoing standoff between the Arizona horsemen and Turf Paradise management.
As a result of welfare concerns springing from a 2020-2021 Turf Paradise race meet marred by a high number of equine fatalities, the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA) have stated they will not sign any race-meet contract until a list of track safety upgrades and other facility management-related requests have been satisfied.
Turf Paradise representatives argue that the Arizona HBPA's requests cannot be met in full, and that their efforts to get the facility up to code are sufficient to begin racing Nov. 5.
When asked whether the commission could step in to dictate track safety standards and protocols in the event the two parties fail to reach an agreement in time, commissioner Rory Goree demurred.
“We definitely want to stay out of the negotiation process,” Goree told TDN Monday after the meeting. “I don't want them living under fear that we might do something. I want to give them a chance to come together and do what they need to do.”
In a July 30 letter to Turf Paradise, the Arizona HBPA itemized 25 safety issues and broader management concerns, the primary one being track surface quality.
“Too many horses last year were euthanized or injured to the point they could no longer race,” the letter stated, before asking that Mick Peterson, director of the Racetrack Safety Program, be brought in to examine the surfaces.
During the whole of 2020 and thus far in 2021, 67 Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses have suffered equine fatalities at Turf Paradise–18 during morning training, 31 during racing, and 18 due to other circumstances–according to results from a public record act request.
The other 24 demands in the letter include upgrades and repairs to the backstretch, grandstand and clubhouse, along with a different 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.
To help substantiate their requests, the Arizona HBPA have shared at the last monthly commission meeting Aug. 12 and on social media a variety of pictures of Turf Paradise in various states of disrepair.
In a further ratcheting up of tensions, subsequent to that last meeting–during which Turf Paradise owner, Jerry Simms, stated that the facility could operate a meet this fall “without a contract” with the horsemen–Turf Paradise management issued a proposed stall application, parts of which the Arizona HBPA have taken exception to.
The proposed agreement gives Turf Paradise “the right to end the meet at any time.”
This contradicts one of the HBPA's 25 requests–namely, that the meet be run in its entirety, “unless the commission rules it is not safe to run. We can use the same language as the last agreement.”
Another sticking point for the horsemen concerns new language in the proposed agreement which places the onus of safety and risk squarely onto the trainer's shoulders.
The agreement states: “Applicant agrees that neither Turf Paradise, nor its officers, directors, employees or agents shall be liable for any loss, damage, death or injury of any kind to Applicant or to Applicant's employees, agents, invitees, exercise riders, jockeys or any member of their respective families, property or animals, regardless of whether such injury, loss, death or damage is caused by a condition of the facilities at Turf Paradise and/or any negligent act or omission of Turf Paradise, its directors, officers, employees and agents from any other cause.
“Applicant hereto specifically and knowingly assumes all risks of such injury, loss, death or damage, fully and completely.”
Last week, Simms issued a letter responding to the HBPA's concerns about certain language in the stall application.
The reason Turf Paradise has demanded it retains the right to end the meet at any time is “because of the threat by the AZHBPA to end Turf's ability to simulcast races from other tracks Sept. 23. The line was added to protect the track from a very real threat that would have brought an end to racing,” Simms writes.
In that same letter, Simms also claims that the language concerning liability is taken verbatim from Canterbury Park's stall application.
“It's not a problem for Turf Paradise's trainers to agree to and sign a stall application with this language in Minnesota but it's somehow a violation of those same trainers' rights here in Arizona,” Simms writes.
According to Bob Hutton, AZHBPA president, he has asked to meet with the Arizona Department of Gaming's director, Ted Vogt, and Racing Division director, Rudy Casillas, prior to any sit-down negotiations with Turf Paradise.
“I want to make sure that if we have something in writing with Turf Paradise that they're going to regulate them,” Hutton said, of the department of gaming.
TDN reached out to the department for a response but did not hear back before deadline.
Those attempting to bring together both sides are staking out a position from the fence.
“Obviously it is a facility that needs to have some money put into it,” said Goree, of Turf Paradise. “We can't keep coming back every year making a big to-do–it needs to come up with a long-term plan for our survival.”
At the same time, Goree takes issue with a one-sided levelling of blame, using his experience in greyhound racing as a point of comparison.
“The kennels always blame the track, and the track blame the kennels. There's blame between both of them,” said Goree. “The kennels sometimes would be running dogs they shouldn't have been running. They were running dogs that should have been in adoption.”
And using the fate of greyhound industry in places like Florida–the state last year voted to successfully ban the sport–Goree warned that the very public and acrimonious nature of these negotiations weigh heavily on an industry already under intense public scrutiny for its equine safety record.
“People who want to end racing see this and they will use it,” he said. “Public perception is going to kill us.”