Hang Time: Prescott horse racing's history, future very different

Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier<br>Spectators watch as the gates fly open for the first race of the season back on May 29, 2010, at the Yavapai Downs race track in Prescott Valley.

Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier<br>Spectators watch as the gates fly open for the first race of the season back on May 29, 2010, at the Yavapai Downs race track in Prescott Valley.

Some bummer summer news came today with word that the Prescott Valley horse racing track, Yavapai Downs, is up for sale.

You know the history by now: After more than six decades of racing at the old Prescott Downs on Rodeo Drive, the sport in 2001 moved east to the far end of Prescott Valley in a scenic spot where the town meets Mingus Mountain; there's a huge splash for an opening day that brought even ESPN here; then, declining attendance; financial woes; legal hearings at hourly rates; and, ultimately, no horse racing.

That's a real shame, since pari-mutuel horse racing in Prescott dates back to 1939. North/central Arizona is certainly horse country to the three R's: racing, rodeo and residents.

Horse racing has had some great moments in Prescott. 18-year-old jockey Jerry Cawthron had 21 first-place finishes in 13 days during the 1957 meet. Who could forget watching Vince Guerra on the mount, and a number of his 22,000-plus career starts coming at Prescott Downs? (Guerra's still going strong by the way, with six first-place finishes in 64 starts at Arapahoe Park in 2014 so far.) Prescott Downs was the first stop on a Hall of Fame journey back in 1980 for legendary trainer Bob Baffert, who first made the transition from quarter horses to thoroughbreds in Prescott. "As a little kid my dad and I used to run horses in Prescott," Baffert told the Daily Courier back in 1999. "I guess I was about 11 years old at the time. In those days, going to Prescott was the thing for me, make no mistake."

Horse racing was and is the real deal here.

I know Gary Miller has the absolute best intentions for the track, the sport, and its horsemen. I don't know what its ultimate fate will be anymore than anyone else can speculate.

What I would love to see out there, however, is a racino.

Seems to me that there are a couple options: 1) Prohibit racinos (where horse racing tracks expand to include slot machines on site) and keep the Downs an empty shell doing no good for anyone; or, 2) Revitalize the track, expand its gaming options, generate revenue, provide jobs, and become a destination trip for local residents, give or take some Coconino and Maricopa county visitors.

And racinos can work, as evidenced by a revitalized track in Ohio.

If there's a valid argument against it, I'm all ears. But in a state where horse racing, greyhound racing, numerous reservation casinos and the plain ol' lottery are legal - not to mention office March Madness brackets everywhere or golf foursome winner-take-all pools - if you come to me with a "harmful vice" song and dance, my ears are taking a walk.

It's amazing more than a decade later to consider that Yavapai Downs' construction price tag was a cool $22 million back in 2001. It may never approach that value again, but that doesn't make it worthless.

Follow Steve Stockmar on Twitter @CourierSports