HomeArizona Sports Betting NewsFate of Horse Racing in Arizona Looks Grim

Fate of Horse Racing in Arizona Looks Grim

While horse racing has a long history in Arizona - dating back 80 years - that history may soon be all that is left of the sport in that state.

Image: IMAGO / Wirestock

Arizona Downs, a thoroughbred race course in Prescott Valley, cited difficult financial conditions for canceling its June-through-September meet this year.

That meant that Arizona residents seeking to attend live races expected to have to wait until November, with the resumption of thoroughbred racing at the Turf Paradise racetrack in Phoenix and a season that typically lasts until Kentucky Derby Day in early May.

But track owner Jerry Simms, who is 77 years old, announced in mid-September that after running the track for 23 years, he decided to retire and spend more time with his family. That appears to be the end of the line at Turf Paradise, which played host to its first races in 1956.

The news gets worse for Arizona horse betting fans. Because there will be no live racing at Turf Paradise, the 37 off-track betting sites maintained by the track – constituting the majority of such locations in Arizona – will shutter on Oct. 1. Live racing at Turf Paradise was a requirement for those OTB sites to operate.

The Rillito Racetrack in Tucson, which dates back to 1943, held another of its limited-edition meets this year, with a mix of quarterhorse and thoroughbred race cards held on nine weekends from early February until early April.

But if there is no other thoroughbred racing in the state, Rillito track officials are liable to find it difficult to put together such races at the site.

As racehorse breeder Marvin Fleming told Arizona Racing Commission members at the commission’s meeting in August, “It is very difficult to promote and encourage breeding in Arizona not knowing from year to year if we will have a track to race at.”

Tom Auther, co-owner of Arizona Downs, informed the commission during that meeting that in the wake of the expected shuttering of Turf Paradise this winter, his track began making tentative plans to seek racing dates in November and December.

But Auther added, “That is by no means guaranteed, and we understand we’ll be under real scrutiny financially.”

Indeed, that plan was scuttled just a few weeks later.

The state’s lone harness racing track, Phoenix Trotting Park, opened and closed within two years in the mid-1960s, though the grandstand was not torn down until 2017.

What’s Behind the Arizona Racetrack Struggles

The so-called “Sport of Kings,” as horse racing has been known, is not nearly as popular as it once was – due in significant part to the massive expansion of other legal, regulated gambling in many states.

Until the launch of the modern lottery in the U.S. in the early 1970s, horse racing was “the only game in town” as far as legal gambling. A bigger hit to the horse racing industry came in the 1990s, as casinos began popping up in many states beyond just those in Nevada and in New Jersey.

And, of course, Arizona sports betting just celebrated its second anniversary.

Various state legislatures have taken on the issue with direct annual racing purse subsidies to the tracks, legalization of slot machines at the tracks so that a portion of the new revenue can keep the tracks in operation, or allowing for “historical horse racing machines” that are similar to slot machines but have a racing component to them.

But none of that has occurred in Arizona, so the industry’s resulting struggles in the state are not entirely unexpected.

Turf Paradise applied for a full sports betting license in 2021, but the Arizona Department of Gaming denied that effort while allowing for very limited in-person wagering at Turf Paradise, Arizona Downs, and eight OTBs. That modest revenue stream has not been large enough to ease the financial challenges to a significant degree, as Arizona mobile sports betting apps tend to produce at least 10 times the amount wagered by visitors to retail sportsbooks.

Simms told racing commission members in August “I’ve had to loan the track over $12 million over the last few years to keep it open. And I did that because I thought we were going to get [historical horse racing] machines. I pretty much felt that we had a very, very good chance to get them from [former Gov.] Doug Ducey, and that didn’t happen.”

What’s Next For Turf Paradise?

News of a possible sale of the 252-acre Turf Paradise site became public in April, but there was a possibility floated of continuing racing for another couple of years.

But the proposed sale of the property to California-based CT Realty fell through in mid-September, and Simms announced his retirement and closure of the track as soon as he found out the news.

CT Realty officials also had inquired about the possible legalization of historical horse racing machines, but the state’s powerful tribal gaming lobby has opposed such a development as potentially harming their revenue from their casinos.

The company’s plan had been to construct a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial development in the north Phoenix location.

Leroy Gessmann, the executive director of the Arizona Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association (AHBPA), told Axios Phoenix that he is skeptical that a new operator will be found to revive horse racing at Turf Paradise because the land is too expensive for such use.

Instead, Gessman said there is informal talk of building a new, smaller thoroughbred racetrack in the Phoenix area.

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