Aug 4, 2023 - Sports

Shortened horse racing season could start in January at Turf Paradise

A two dimensional statue of a jockey on a horse under a sign that says Turf Paradise.

Photo: Jeremy Duda/Axios

The developer that plans to buy and redevelop Turf Paradise might hold a shortened racing season starting in January 2024 after its current owner decided against beginning the season this November as originally planned.

  • But that might come down to whether the industry gets some help from the Legislature and governor.

State of play: Turf Paradise owner Jerry Simms won't hold a racing season with the sale of the track pending.

  • "Twenty-three years. I'm tired," Simms tells Axios Phoenix, referring to the amount of time he's owned the north Phoenix track.
  • He added that he tried to negotiate a deal for a season with horse owners, "but it just didn't come together."

What's next: James Watson of CT Realty, which is under contract to buy the track, told Axios Phoenix that Dec. 17 is the target date for his company to take over.

Yes, but: To boost the struggling industry's revenues, Watson says, he'd like to see the Legislature and Gov. Katie Hobbs legalize historic horse racing machines, in which people can bet on old races with identifying details omitted.

  • For that to happen in time for a new racing season next January, Hobbs would have to call a special session.
  • Watson wouldn't describe it as a prerequisite but tells us, "I don't like to be absolutely black and white, but I'd say it's critical."

Zoom in: Watson says there's legislative support for historic horse racing, but there's been no word from the governor's office.

Between the lines: There doesn't appear to be much, if any, momentum at the Capitol for a special session, either.

  • Spokespeople for Senate president Warren Petersen and House speaker Ben Toma also hadn't heard any discussion, and a spokesperson for Hobbs declined to comment.
  • Rep. David Cook, a Globe Republican who often works on horse racing issues, said he hasn't heard any talk of a special session.
  • "This is the first I've heard about it," says Sen. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican who praised funding for Turf Paradise in the fiscal year 2024 budget.

Flashback: Previous attempts to pass historic horse racing legislation have fallen short.

  • Sen. David Gowan, a Sierra Vista Republican who championed the issue, didn't respond to a request from Axios Phoenix.

Why it matters: Race tracks and horse owners have seen profits dwindle in recent years, and with Arizona Downs in Prescott Valley shut down, Turf Paradise is the last horse racing site in the state.

  • Leroy Gessman, executive director of the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, tells Axios that losing the entire season would be a major financial hit to horse owners.
  • Even a delayed season will be costly because it's difficult for owners to bring their horses from out-of-state by then.

The big picture: CT Realty plans to turn Turf Paradise into a business park including office, commercial and residential developments.

  • Watson says it's possible that racing will continue once the redevelopment is completed.
  • "None of that is cast in stone," he said of the possible end of racing at the Turf Paradise site.

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