Yavapai Downs opener
Dennis Collins and Kristina Kenney ran neck-and-neck in the leading jockey standings at Yavapai Downs last summer, with the former claiming the earnings title by a mere $687.
It is this brand of competitive racing that the Downs hopes to witness once again as the track in Prescott Valley, 10501 Highway 89A, embarks on its ninth season Saturday at 1:10 p.m.
This year, the Downs is offering an extra week of racing, going every Saturday through Tuesday until Sept. 8, with the exception of July 1-10 when the complex goes dark.
"We are always optimistic, despite the economy," racing secretary John Everly said earlier this month. "Stalls are full and the horsemen are looking forward to the new meet. We've got some new faces and some returning faces that haven't been here in a couple years. It should make for an interesting and competitive meet."
One of those helping to stoke the competitive flames is Raul Hernandez, the Downs' perennial leading trainer who works predominantly with quarter horses but returns this year with a few more thoroughbreds than he has had in the past.
Joining Hernandez and the other veteran trainers who consistently come back to the track is a trio of newcomers from Boise, Idaho.
Everly said brothers Kenneth and Tim Elison, as well as Kenneth McReynolds, are newcomers to the Downs but expect to fare well.
All three men were leading trainers for several years at Les Bois Park in Boise and came to Prescott Valley after learning the track in their hometown will not open this summer.
"They certainly will be heard from at this meet," Everly said.
Added Randy Fozzard, the Downs' racing operations manager, "They're very active horsemen, so we're expecting a real spike from that. But we also have trainers from Turf Paradise who normally go to Washington state or Minnesota for the summer that have decided to come up here."
One of those trainers from Turf Paradise is Keith Bennett, who led the standings at the Phoenix track this past year. He has become known as one of the most successful men in the training profession in Arizona.
On the jockey side, Collins, who took home $256,744 last year, will return to the Downs to defend his earnings title.
He rode a lot of quarter horses and had better stock to ride than most other jockeys. One of Collins' keys to winning is his willingness to let his horses ride without inhibiting them.
Collins probably would have distanced himself further from Kenney in the standings last year had he not suffered a serious concussion on the second to last weekend of racing at the Downs.
He fell off a quarter horse when his saddle slipped and paramedics had to air-evacuate him to a Phoenix hospital for treatment.
"I had a couple horses that I really, really wanted to ride that last weekend and didn't have the opportunity to ride them," said Collins, who had to wear a cervical collar for six days to make sure he had not cracked the vertebrae in his neck. "I didn't get a release to ride at Turf Paradise until opening day in early October. I'm feeling good now."
Kenney will not return to the Downs this year, despite claiming $256,057 in 2008. She will race instead at Prairie Meadows Racetrack in Altoona, Iowa.
Jockey Wilson Dieguez, who has not raced at the Downs in years, will help compensate for the loss of Kenney. He is a consistent Top 5 rider at Turf Paradise during the winters.
"He will win a ton of races here, too," Everly said.
Joining Dieguez is Kate Repp, a successful journeyman rider who is originally from Washington state.
Also boosting the track's fortunes is that the Downs received about 1,600 stall applications, which is more than it has ever had for its 1,000 stalls, Fozzard said.
"We're expecting a lot of interest from the horsemen, and a lot of good, full fields," he said.
Added Downs General Manager Jim Grundy, "Sometimes it makes it difficult for the horsemen, but from out standpoint, we know our barn area is going to be full."
Grundy said new stables at the grounds also will increase competition among jockeys.
"If you've got good owners that are willing to buy the right stock and let you run them where they need to be run, such as claiming races, a trainer will be very successful," Fozzard said. "If a guy's going to try to be cheap on his feet and cheap on his training and be handcuffed by his owner, he doesn't have much of a chance."
Phoenix agent Brad Fowler said racing has gotten better at the Downs with higher quality horses and riders. Off-track betting has bolstered business immensely.
But Pierce, like other agents, thinks conditions here won't really improve until the State of Arizona considers allowing its tracks to add slot-machine casinos to their complexes.
"Their biggest challenge is creating bigger purses, and typically the way to do that is to get more people out to the track," Pierce said. "Revenues from a casino can be used to boost the revenues from the track."
Longtime Phoenix agent Bob Dunham, 65, said the operators at the Downs are working hard to improve their track. But he agrees with Fowler about the need for casinos. The stumbling block on whether that happens mainly hinges on who will get the money and how it is divided.
"They'd have more purse money if they had a casino," said Dunham, who is spending his summer at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., a track that features a casino. "New Mexico, Iowa, Pennsylvania and West Virginia all have slots, and their purses are just incredible. Somehow we've got to get people interested into coming to the live races (at the Downs). That would be a big help."
For more information about the Downs' racing season, log on to the track's website at www.yavapaidownsatpv.com/racing.html.