Yavapai Downs won't open for 2011
The news that Arizona horsemen were dreading finally arrived Wednesday after days of nervous waiting: The Yavapai Downs horse racetrack will not open at all this summer.
Yavapai Downs operators told the Arizona Racing Commission Wednesday afternoon that they will not conduct a summer meet in Prescott Valley. It usually runs Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend.
They hope to reopen the track in 2012, possibly with the help of a new partnership, investor group or restructuring, said Jeff Wasowicz, board chair of the non-profit Yavapai County Farm & Agriculture Association that owns the track.
Racing Commission members and others questioned whether horsemen would return after getting burned this year.
"Keeping everybody in the dark has not been the appropriate thing to do," Arizona Racing Commission Chair Erin Owens told the Downs officials.
Horsemen at Wednesday's commission meeting in Phoenix said some people wasted their last dollars to get to Yavapai Downs this month, and they were angry that the Downs didn't make a decision before they arrived.
The lack of notice was "reprehensible," trainer Steve Irlando said.
"You've hurt a lot of people," he told Wasowicz. Other Yavapai Downs board members did not attend the meeting.
"All of us went up there fully confident we would have a meet up there," trainer Debbie Ferguson said, trying to hold back tears. "There has been gross neglect on the part of the board."
Just two weeks ago, Yavapai Downs General Manager Mike Mullaney told the commission everything was good to go, Owens recalled.
"There's been so much uncertainty and lack of clarity," she said.
Wasowicz said that as late as Monday, he still held out hope the races could take place.
"But as we worked through ideas, we always came to the same conclusion that this is not going to work," he told the commission.
The association just cannot come up with the money to start the Yavapai Downs races Saturday as planned, Wasowicz said.
"When this new board took over operations of Yavapai Downs about a year and a half ago, we realized that the track faced some very severe financial challenges," Wasowicz said. "The depth and the complicated nature of those challenges slowly but steadily grew, and to this day, new problems continue to arise."
The track's accounts payable has been in arrears for years, Owens said.
The summer racing meet in the Prescott area has been operating since 1960, moving to a new $23 million Prescott Valley facility in 2001. County fair racing started in Prescott in 1913.
But horse racing dates back to Prescott's early territorial days when local ranchers would bet a silver dollar that they would win a match race, noted Vincent Francia, general manager at the state's largest racetrack, Turf Paradise in Phoenix. He remembers seeing a story about it when he used to come up to Prescott Downs to help organize early off-track betting.
"So that's where it all started," he told The Daily Courier after Wednesday's meeting.
OTB sites stay open
On the bright side, off-track betting (OTB) will continue on schedule throughout Arizona.
The Arizona Racing Commission accepted a proposal from Turf Paradise Wednesday to operate the state's 61 OTB sites, including those in Prescott and Prescott Valley. Turf Paradise operates the OTB sites when Yavapai Downs is not running, so it already has its municipal permits set up. Yavapai Downs officials had set up only about 20 sites.
"As tough of a decision as it was for the Yavapai board, it was the right decision to make," Francia said after the meeting. "They need to get their finances in order."
Some of the bigger tracks across the country were refusing to let Yavapai Downs officials broadcast their races at Arizona OTB sites because Yavapai owed them money. If those OTB sites operated without the big races, they would have lost a lot of bettors, and that would have been disastrous, because 80 percent of the horse wagering money in Arizona goes through OTB sites, Francia said.
"If the OTB system collapses, the entire racing industry in Arizona collapses," he said.
The horsemen get half of the OTB money for race purses, and the commission's action should bring them an extra $1.5 million to $2 million for Turf purses, Turf Paradise lobbyist John Mangum told the commission.
But Turf now will need a change in state law to allow it to operate OTB sites longer next year, he added.
Turf helps Coconino
Turf Paradise also has offered to make sure the Coconino County Fair's annual four-day racing event takes place during the Independence Day holiday if Coconino County decides it wants to run. They are meeting about it today.
"We want to get this word out as quickly as possible (so horsemen) have somewhere to go in July," Francia said.
Yavapai Downs officials helped run the struggling Coconino races last year, but they obviously can't help this year.
Turf Paradise also is considering letting horses arrive for fall racing early, although temperatures could be an issue.
Help for horsemen, employees
Turf Paradise and the Arizona Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) officials told the Racing Commission Wednesday they will come to Yavapai Downs today to help stranded horsemen out with money.
"Whoever needs a roof over their head is coming to my house," added one person in the audience, Lisa Jenkins.
But most of the horsemen appeared to have abandoned the track by Wednesday afternoon.
Along with more than 100 horsemen who had arrived at the track for the season, the track already had hired more than 100 of its 300 seasonal workers.
"Whoever we can afford to keep, we'll keep," Wasowicz said.
Wasowicz said he will be at the track today to talk to horsemen. Yavapai Downs will allow trainers and others to stay for several weeks if they have no place to go, and they'll leave on the electricity and water, he said. The four-day Coconino races are the only other summer horse races in Arizona.
Are racinos the answer?
Some Racing Commission members expressed fears that the closing of Yavapai Downs this summer is another sign that horse racing is dying, and gambling slot machines alongside horse racing, or "racinos," might be the only thing that could save the industry.
"What I see happening is a gradual demise of racing in Arizona," Commissioner Melvin McDonald told Yavapai Downs officials. "Unless there's some dramatic changes, probably a racino, you're not going to reduce this debt."
Arizona House of Representatives Speaker Andy Tobin of Paulden has proposed racinos as a way to help the state's struggling budget.
"I believe there is a future for Yavapai Downs," Commissioner Burton Kruglick said, noting that more than a dozen states allow racinos. "I believe that future is tied to slot machines."
But he lamented the day that the Yavapai County Fair Board decided to build a $23 million track and grandstands on the edge of Prescott Valley.
"They should have built a small track, half that size or less," Kruglick said, because most people watch races at OTB sites these days anyway.
The Farm & Ag Association still owes about $13 million to the federal government for the 10-year-old PV facilities.
Horsemen also accused the track of poor management once it moved to Prescott Valley.
"From the very beginning, it was mismanaged," horseman Dennis Baker charged at the commission hearing.
The Daily Courier newspaper joined the Racing Commission meeting via telephone.
The meeting room was full of about 60 people, Francia said.
"All of us were just sitting on the verge of tears," he said.
Commission Chair Owens clearly was choking up when she thanked people for remaining civil.
"You guys are survivors," she told the horsemen. "It doesn't make the trip down the road easier."