It’s been a week of highs after a year loaded with lows for Phoenix horse racing track Turf Paradise, which kicked off its 68th season of action Monday at the corner of 19th Avenue and Bell Road amid an ongoing ownership saga.
The longtime Arizona horse racing stalwart is still up for sale, months after a deal between longtime owner Jerry Simms and a group led by Richard Moore and Frank Nickens fell through late last year.
The nixed deal is just the latest in a line of stories concerning the track, which also is on the lookout for a new Arizona sports betting operator after the track’s limited wagering partner Unibet announced it would shut down its American operations by the end of May.
Vincent Francia, who is the general manager of the North Valley racetrack, told BetArizona.com the facility will find a new wagering partner before that date, with little effect on the track’s wagering patrons other than a new brand name on the track’s retail sportsbook.
“Sports betting at Turf Paradise will go forward, but with another provider,” Francia said. “There’s going to be no disruption in sports betting.”
Could This Be the End?
While the future of sports betting at Turf Paradise appears to be set, the same cannot be said of the track’s on-course racing future, with Simms still on the lookout for a buyer after the deal with Moore and Nickens fell through.
At the moment, Francia said that the course’s immediate plan is to roll through their 57-day racing schedule that began Monday and runs through Kentucky Derby Day on May 4.
The hope for those involved in the racing industry in Arizona is another interested buyer (or the previous pair) will come through in the clutch, giving the venerable track stable ownership well into the future.
Francia expressed hope that Monday’s opening day was a sign of a bright future for the track, with $2 million in handle, which was well north of where the track typically starts their season.
“[Monday] was great, with the faithful showing up and wagering accordingly,” Francia said. “Our opening day handle was really good for us, especially for a Monday. And the reason why we are racing Monday through Thursday, we have a better position in the market on those days as we do say Friday, Saturday and Sunday when we're competing against the bigger tracks.”
Turf Paradise Seeks Expanded Sports Betting
While Turf Paradise has a limited wagering license, which means it isn’t allowed to offer Arizona betting apps, Francia said the door is not closed on the track one again pursuing a full license in 2024.
The Arizona Department of Gaming will open up the window to apply for the final two professional sports franchise wagering licenses from Feb. 16 through March 4. Only one professional sports team in the state without a license — Phoenix Rising Football Club — has expressed interest publicly in pursuing a license.
The TPC Scottsdale, which hosts next week’s Phoenix Open, owns one of the state’s eight pro sports betting licenses and is partnered with DraftKings Sportsbook Arizona. DraftKings’ onsite retail sportsbook opened in October and will be used as a VIP hospitality area during the PGA tournament.
Turf Paradise originally applied for a full license from the ADG in 2021 and was denied. The track was unsuccessful in challenging that decision through the court system.
Turf Paradise and its nine off-track limited event wagering partners took in $1,816,005 in handle during November, which ranks well ahead of the online handle for Unibet Arizona ($983,242.30) during the same time.
Francia said the track’s plan is to look into full wagering licensure prior to the ADG’s window, though its main focus is finding a long-term owner along with a new limited wagering partner once Unibet closes for good in May.
“There is the one that we're looking at. But right now we just want to, in terms of priority, ensure our customer base that frequents our sports betting operations are always going to move forward after Unibet ends their U.S. operations [in May],” Francia said. “That's important to us, to get that message out that there's going to be no break in sports betting at Turf Paradise.”
What Comes Next for Turf Paradise
Francia is cautiously optimistic an interested buyer will pony up the money necessary to keep the 213-acre track going strong, with Arizona sports betting providing a solid revenue stream into the future.
“The outpouring of support [on opening day], it didn't surprise me because Turf Paradise has been in Phoenix since 1956 and was the first Arizona sports franchise — so generations of Arizonans identified with Turf Paradise long before the Phoenix Suns and the Diamondbacks and the Coyotes came into being,” Francia said. “And the thought that the racecourse was not going to be here anymore after 68 years was a real shocker.
“So we began to receive this outpouring from the public, asking if there was anything that can be done to keep it going, etc., etc. And the fact that we were able to open [Monday] was great. They showed up and showed us their support. They want the track to keep going in some form.”
Francia believes there will be a long-term future for the facility, given the outpouring of interest Turf Paradise’s management has received from potential buyers since the previous deal fell through late last year.
“[Horse racing at Turf Paradise] will either continue under the ownership of Jerry Simms or between now and Kentucky Derby Day, there will be another buyer, and the track will go forward with that buyer,” Francia said.