By T. D. Thornton
The current ownership that is selling at Turf Paradise in Phoenix won't be opening the track in November as planned for its 2023-24 race meet. But horsemen are holding out hope that the incoming ownership will be able and willing to operate the remainder of the scheduled season from January through May 4 if the real estate deal closes as expected by mid-December.
Turf Paradise management issued a statement via Facebook Tuesday afternoon confirming the decision.
Also on Tuesday, an email message reportedly sent to Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA) members by that group's executive director, Leroy Gessmann, detailed potential next steps as the 67-year-old venue transitions to its new buyer, CT Realty of Dallas and Newport Beach, California.
“After several months of speculation and rumors, I finally have some definite updates that I can report to the membership,” Gessmann wrote. “Yesterday July 31, 2023, [AZHBPA] President Lloyd J. Yother received a call from [Turf Paradise owner] Mr. Jerry Simms, telling us that his final decision was to not run a race meet in November and December of 2023. After 23 years of running race meets, he felt it was time that he stepped aside and turn things over to the possible potential buyer, Mr. James Watson,” who is the managing partner of CT Realty.
“He wanted to announce this now, so horsemen had time to find alternative plans,” Gessmann wrote. “Mr. Simms has started laying off key employees, is issuing a national press release this week and stopped watering the turf track. So, I do not see things changing.”
Gessmann continued: “What is next for Arizona racing? After conversations with Mr. Watson, his status is that his final financial approval will be issued on Sept. 15. If this is approved and all the zoning goes through, then they plan to close the sale on Dec. 17. If all that falls into place, Mr. Watson is considering running a race meet starting in January through May 4. A lot of ifs in that last statement, but there is a chance for a race meet in January 2024.
“There also appears to be a lot of interest in Arizona Downs currently,” Gessmann wrote, referring to the track 82 miles north in Prescott Valley.
Arizona Downs didn't apply for a June-through-September race meet this year because of financial difficulties. That facility formerly ran as Yavapai Downs between 2000 and 2010. The ownership at that time then filed for bankruptcy.
Arizona Downs co-owner Tom Auther “is telling me he has had some racing companies contact him on the possibility of investing in Arizona Downs to allow the running of some type of race meet. This would require a lot of things to come together quickly and cooperation from the Department of Racing. But there are ongoing discussions,” Gessmann wrote.
“There have been some major racetrack operators expressing interest in building a new track in Maricopa County,” Gessmann wrote. “These alternatives may be longshots, but there is interest in rebuilding Arizona racing. I know Mr. Simms's decision to close the track is very disappointing and scary news to all of us. However, I want you to know that I, President Yother and the HBPA Board will continue to work on restoring racing in Arizona!”
The sale of Turf Paradise was first made public Apr. 12. At that time, TDN reported that racing was expected to continue there only as a placeholder for several more seasons while new uses for the venue went through the planning, approval, and construction stages.
About a month later, other news outlets in Arizona subsequently reported that CT Realty would consider keeping racing going on a longer-term basis if it could successfully lobby the state legislature to approve historical horse racing machines or some other form of gaming at the track.
The relationship between the Arizona racing community and Simms has been acrimonious. An extraordinarily long pandemic closure, multiple racetrack safety issues, and prolonged fights over off-track betting privileges, simulcast signals, and how the horsemen's purse money can be used have roiled in the courts and at racing commission meetings.
Simms has been quoted in the press since 2020 as saying that he operates Turf Paradise at a “huge negative” financially.
Gessmann told TDN back in April that, “Our understanding is it's going to be developed in stages, and they're going to race for one to two, [maybe] three more years depending on the development process.”