It appears reports of Phoenix horse racing track Turf Paradise’s demise may have been premature, as the venerable north Valley facility will live on under a new steward.
According to longtime track General Manager Vincent Francia, the facility on the corner of 19th Avenue & Bell Road will resume horse racing in January, with the facility’s simulcasting and off-track betting operations continuing as they are at the moment. It’s an about-face that’s welcome news to Francia, and Arizona sports betting fans, as it appeared the track’s days were numbered as recently as last month.
“What's going on at Turf Paradise right now is we are in the process of being purchased. And that's a twofold process,” Francia told BetArizona.com “One is, of course, the actual purchase itself — the agreement of terms, the putting down of earnest money and things like that. And that has to do with the purchase of the racetrack.
“The second is the gentleman who's purchasing the racetrack, [Richard Moore], he will go through a process with the state where they vet him, and that has to be approved by the state. So that's where we are now. The horsemen are looking to have a live meet open in January.”
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Who Is Buying Turf Paradise?
According to reports from the Daily Racing Form, the principal buyer of the track is Frank Nickens, with Moore providing the backing for the deal. Nickens is, “the man who’s going to carry out the vision,” Francia said.
Regardless of the exact leadership setup, the deal between longtime track owner Jerry Simms and the new leadership team of Nickens and Moore allows Phoenix’s 67-year-old race track to continue operations as is.
“What looked to be the certain demise and end of racing in Arizona, because of the closing of Turf Paradise, at this point has a happy ending,” Francia said. “What is the case is racing in Arizona is in transition. And the three tracks in the states are the one up north [Arizona Downs in Prescott Valley] and one in the south [Tucson’s Rillito Downs], and we’re going to have a role as the industry goes through this transition, and hopefully comes out of it and in a stronger way.”
In an interview with the DRF, Nickens expressed confidence the legendary Phoenix track would thrive under his leadership, using his past efforts in the mining and construction industry in the state to build a successful endeavor in the Valley.
“There has never been a time where I had the money to do something and I didn’t succeed,” Nickens told DRF.
What Deal Means For Arizona Sports Betting
Turf Paradise received a limited event wagering license from the Arizona Department of Gaming in 2022 after failing to receive a full Arizona betting apps license when the market opened in 2021. The track’s legal actions to receive a full license were also denied.
The limited licenses for Turf Paradise, Arizona Downs of Prescott Valley and eight off track betting locations partnered with Turf Paradise allow for only retail sports betting. Turf Paradise partnered with Unibet Arizona to create a retail space at the track.
For July, the last month wagering data is available from the ADG, Turf Paradise did $282,630 in handle. And its $51,008 in adjusted gross event wagering receipts were more than eight of 17 mobile operators had in the month. It was also more than two of the retail locations operated by the state’s major professional franchises — BetMGM Arizona at State Farm Stadium and Caesars Arizona at Chase Field.
For longtime sports betting industry insiders, such as Brendan Bussmann of B Global Advisors, Turf Paradise’s lifeline still raises questions about how sustainable the track’s future is, given the state of Arizona horse racing and the divide between retail and online wagering in the Grand Canyon State.
“Turf Paradise lives to see another race. The question continues though, for how long?” Bussmann told BetArizona.com. “This does also keep alive over half of the OTBs that also faced a challenging future. It has challenges ahead, and we will learn in the coming weeks how the new owner’s plan could keep it going in the future."
Where Turf Paradise Goes From Here
In the immediate future, Turf Paradise has the green light from the Arizona Department of Gaming to continue the track’s OTB and limited event wagering offerings, according to a statement from Maxwell Hartgraves, who serves as the ADG’s legislative affairs & communications manager.
“The Arizona Horseman’s Benevolent & Protective Association voted to extend simulcast approvals for Turf Paradise through November 12. With the HBPA's simulcast signal approval for Turf Paradise, the Arizona Racing Commission voted to extend the approval of pari-mutuel wagering through the same date,” Hartgraves told BetArizona.com in an emailed statement.
For now, the 213-acre lot that Turf Paradise occupies will undergo a series of renovations over the next year, with Nickens telling DRF he plans to put $50 million into the facility.
“Every square inch of it is going to change,” Nickens told DRF. “I’m not just talking about putting a new coat of paint on it. We’re going to put the money into it to do it as a first-class facility.”
As for Turf Paradise’s immediate future on the track, January appears to be the target date Francia has in mind for the next season of racing, which is a few months later than usual. That will allow the new leadership to get in and set the table for the year ahead, Francia said, while bringing a new chapter to a facility that’s been in flux for a long while.
“One of the subtexts about horse racing is we kind of live by the axiom that hope springs eternal. And the appearance of these owners at the 11th hour would certainly fall under that category of hope springs eternal,” Francia said. “So what we're looking to do is to host a live meet in early January. And that will go to the first Saturday of May, which is (Kentucky) Derby Day.
“If everything goes well, with the purchase and the reopening of Turf Paradise, we will fall back into that pattern.”