The grass course at Turf Paradise, which management closed after conducting only three races over it the first two days of the meet Jan. 4 and 5, is now scheduled for a Jan. 25 reopening after having restoration work performed on its root system.
Turf Paradise general manager Vincent Francia detailed the maintenance work and plans for the reopening of the seven-furlong infield course during the Jan. 14 Arizona Racing Commission meeting.
“What happened with the turf course was nobody's fault,” Francia claimed. “When we closed on March 14 [in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak], we suspended all activity. And that suspension included not taking care of the turf course during the summer…
“So when we started racing [on] it at the early part of the meet, the jockeys found it safe, but they were really just digging it up, and we could see that if we continued to run on it we were going to damage it and it's not going to be able to continue,” Francia said.
“So we have been off of it. Last Saturday, the turf course was infused with liquid iron. And what that does, that's like a human booster shot,” Francia explained. “That liquid goes right to the roots, and that was followed with a nitrate fertilizer. I was on the course Tuesday. I can already see the difference through Wednesday. We're scheduled to go back on the turf Jan. 25, and hopefully this corrective action will take us through the rest of the meet,” which ends May 1.
Leroy Gessmann, who serves as both the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA) executive director and the National HBPA president, told commissioners that “we're all anxious to get back on it, but we all understand the importance of getting a good root system on the turf course in order to run on it.”
Turf Paradise is flush with about 1,400 horses on its backstretch, an uptick from previous meets largely because of the influx of outfits from northern California and New Mexico, where racing has been recently curtailed because of restrictions related to the pandemic.
“We're in the ninth day of the 84-day session,” Francia said. “We've been up every day in our handle, which is very encouraging, and this is without the turf course being in operation, which is very popular with the horseplayers.
“Handle-wise, we're doing really wonderful,” Francia continued. “The on-track attendance every day is where we want it. It's about 60 people a day. We can manage that, make sure everybody's safe. They're all wearing masks [but we try to] keep them socially distant.”
Francia told commissioners that since the backstretch opened in late November, 22 coronavirus positives have been reported among licensees who have been tested. He added that most of those positives were reported among off-track betting (OTB) mutuel tellers, one of whom died from COVID-19 complications.
Francia said there have been three coronavirus positives among backstretch personnel, and that all three were quarantined, subsequently tested negative, and are now back at work.
Without naming the licensees, Francia added that, “We did have a rider test positive [Jan. 13] who never entered the [jockeys'] room. He is quarantined. His jockey agent is quarantined. And the two other riders [who employ that agent] have been contact-traced and alerted.”
Francia said that, “I think one of the obvious things we can conclude there is our horsemen are outside. And being outside in fresh air is an advantage, and that helps with the prevention of this virus spreading. When we look at our OTB teller situation, [they are] not outside. They are in confined quarters, a restaurant or a bar, and there's people going in and out.”
Added Gessmann: “Having hardly any breakouts [on the backside] has been fabulous. I would have never thought we'd get [this far into the meet] and only have two or three positives of horsemen back there.”
Gessmann also lauded Turf Paradise for the Jan. 11 reopening of the four-furlong dirt training track in the southwest corner of the backside, which will help ease congestion during morning training.
“The reports I'm getting back from exercise riders is it's in good shape,” Gessmann said. “After sitting for 10 months with no use, it is worked up and getting conditioned. It's been a big help to get that open.”