Uncertain Future for Arizona Racing Industry

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Turf Paradise | Coady photo

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At the Arizona Racing Commission meeting last month, representatives from the state's flagship racetrack, Turf Paradise, announced that they wouldn't be running their scheduled 2020-2021 race meet between November and May, blaming a variety of factors including health concerns due to the global pandemic, and economic question marks surrounding the operations of Off Track Betting (OTBs) facilities.

That decision has sown seeds of confusion and doubt among many involved in the state's racing industry–a scenario complicated by ongoing friction between the horsemen and Turf Paradise management.

“Definitely a huge impact,” said trainer Jared Brown, who ordinarily is based in Canada during the summer and at Turf Paradise in the winter. Brown's southern sojourn is usually a time for restocking his stable for the year ahead, but without that opportunity this winter, “it will impact my business a big deal,” he added.

With the next commission meeting looming this Thursday, perhaps the most pressing issue is this: What may happen to the 2020-2021 race dates, seemingly up for grabs?

“I don't know what the future is,” said Kevin Owens, an Arizona-based breeder and former president of the Arizona Thoroughbred Breeders Association (ATBA). “I think it's important to get Arizona open. Give some hope to the people.”

Tom Auther, an owner and partner in Arizona Downs, said that he has informed the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA) that his track could be in a position to conduct a truncated meet this winter. But first, funding would have to be secured–another bone of contention thanks to a fight over who controls the funds in the purse account.

According to Vincent Francia, Turf Paradise general manager, the funds contractually belong to Turf Paradise. “The purse monies are for a specific purpose,” said Francia. “And that is for the horsemen that race at Turf Paradise.”

The horsemen, however, argue that they have control over the purse account. As per a prior arbitrated settlement, “that purse money belongs to the horsemen,” said Leroy Gessman, president of the National HBPA, who added that the account currently totals an estimated $2.1 million. “It's the property of the HBPA,” he said.

The AZHBPA has asked the racing commission to make a ruling on the dispute, said Gessman, who added that the issue is an item on the agenda at the October racing commission meeting. However, “it is still unclear if they have the authority or not” to make that ruling, he wrote, in a follow-up email.

Indeed, according to Francia, such a dispute can only be settled through third-party arbitration, conducted separately from the commission. If the purse money is released to the AZHBPA, that would pave the way for Arizona Downs to possibly stage a truncated meet this winter, said Gessman.

For that to occur, the facility would need about two months of preparation to make it safe for training and racing, said Auther, who added that Dennis Moore, the Southern California-based expert in racetrack surfaces, recently visited Arizona Downs to examine the track surface.

“We've never raced in the winter before,” said Auther, explaining some of the racetrack surface safety issues that would need to be navigated. Ultimately, he added, ongoing uncertainty in the state makes planning difficult. “We just don't know what's going to happen,” he said.

What's more, the door appears to remain ajar for Turf Paradise to reverse course and conduct a race meet this upcoming winter.

“I don't want to give our horsemen false hope,” Francia said, stressing the unpredictable nature of the pandemic. “What I am saying is we're keeping all of our options open.”

These developments form just the latest chapter in a fraught relationship between the horsemen and Turf Paradise. When the facility officially closed its doors at the beginning of May, for example, track management gave the AZHBPA 30 days to remove its belongings from its Turf Paradise office.

These tensions persisted prior to the August commission meeting, when the AZHBPA emailed the operators of Turf Paradise a list of 17 questions and demands 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.

A number of horsemen interviewed for this story voiced concern about Turf Paradise management recently selling off track equipment and certain items of the facility–a possible indication, they said, of the track's lack of long-term commitment to the sport.

“This is something we do every year,” Francia explained. “If we had to conduct a race meet, I would need a couple weeks to put it together, but we could do that.”

When asked if Turf Paradise is indeed for sale, Francia responded that Turf Paradise owner Jerry Simms is open to offers. “That's certainly one of the options we'd look at,” said Francia. “But there are no buyers out there right now for Turf Paradise.”

Others have more immediate concerns. According to Arizona racing commissioner Rory Goree, stakeholders need to “put their differences aside” in order to thrash out a way forward “that works for all of us.”

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