Hold your horses: Turf Paradise to resume racing, extend off-track betting

Turf Paradise’s surprising turnaround from the brink of closure sheds light on the resilience of the Arizona horse racing industry and brings hope for the sport’s future. (Photo by Mia Jones/Cronkite News)

Live racing at Turf Paradise is expected to resume in January, according to a release Wednesday from the track, keeping horse racing alive in Phoenix. (Photo by Jacob Luthi/Cronkite News)https://cronkitenews.azpbs.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=219539&action=edit#

Amid Turf Paradise’s revival, a renewed emphasis on horse safety is a top priority for the Arizona racing community. (Photo by Mia Jones/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Turf Paradise is back in the saddle.

Ten days after announcing that live racing would cease at Turf Paradise, and therefore off-track betting sites would shut down as well, the track said Wednesday that live racing would resume in January.

(Audio by Austin Hepola/Cronkite News)

Additionally, the Arizona Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association extended its contract with Turf Paradise to simulcast races for wagering until Nov. 12.

The announcement’s impact stretches beyond the track remaining open. Turf Paradise maintains 37 OTB sites, which account for more than half of the OTB sites statewide.

“It means everything to the horse racing industry in Arizona,” said Vincent Francia, general manager of Turf Paradise. “Also for Turf Paradise, which has been here for 67 years, we got lucky as we say, in our sport.”

Track owner Jerry Simms told the Arizona Racing Commission Thursday that he has selected a buyer called Turf Paradise Land Trust LLC.

In a span of less than two weeks, Turf Paradise, which opened in 1956, went from the possibility of closing to having hope that horse racing would continue in Arizona.

Turf Paradise has come under fire for various reasons in the past. In January, the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) sent a notice to Turf Paradise that included a number of alleged violations.

As Cronkite News reported in February 2022, from November 2021 to February 2022, 24 horses died at Turf Paradise and 11 died while racing. With live races set to resume at the track, many track supporters want to change the narrative.

“All we want to do is see the horses raced in a healthy, safe and sound manner,” said Marty Irby, senior advisor for the Animal Wellness Foundation.

Along with seeing an improvement with the horses, Turf Paradise also needs to revamp its track to satisfy racing conditions by January.

The Arizona Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association's contract with Turf Paradise to simulcast races for wagering extends to Nov. 12. (Photo by Jacob Luthi/Cronkite News)

The Arizona Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association’s contract with Turf Paradise to simulcast races for wagering extends to Nov. 12. (Photo by Jacob Luthi/Cronkite News)

Simms announced earlier in September that he was retiring to spend more time with his family. His retirement led to the end of live racing for the track, which meant that the surrounding OTB sites would also shut down without the live races needed in order to operate.

Steve Stephens, operator of Arena Sports Grill, runs one of the OTB sites that simulcasts races. Since becoming a site for off-track betting, Stevens said he appreciated the crowds that come to the restaurant to place wagers for races.

“That whole Triple Crown is huge for us,” Stevens said. “It’s like having an extra three Super Bowls a year.”

OTB allows different establishments to simulcast races across the country, and allows patrons to wager on horses. Irby said that although betting on horses can be a hot-button issue, it plays a key component in keeping horse racing alive.

“There’s nothing even remotely close to the amount of money that comes in,” Ibry said. “So it’s something economically that will prove to bring in a lot more jobs and a lot more opportunities to the area.”

With Simms able to find a potential buyer, there are various processes that require approval for the new owner to become licensed. What once seemed like a bitter end for the Arizona racetrack, Turf Paradise now sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

“In our darkest hour, which is the closure of a racetrack, Turf Paradise got hope,” Francia said.

Caitlin Fowble(she/her/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Caitlin Fowble expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Fowble has worked as a digital aide for Arizona PBS and has interned with the Orange County Riptide in the sports information department.

Austin Hepola(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Austin Hepola expects to graduate in December 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hepola has interned at Varsity Sports Radio Show in Phoenix as a broadcaster.

Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Jacob Luthi expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree in sports journalism. Luthi graduated from the University of California, Riverside in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.

Mia Jones(she/her/hers)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Mia Jones expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Jones has interned for the Arizona Coyotes, CBS Photo and Sun Devil Athletics.