Turf Paradise Nears Sale for Development; Horsemen Eye Arizona Downs Revival

Turf Paradise in Phoenix is reportedly in the due-diligence phase of negotiations to be sold for development.

Racing is expected to continue only as a placeholder for several more seasons while new uses for the 67-year-old venue go through the planning, approval and construction stages.

The incoming owner of Arizona’s primary commercial Thoroughbred track is expected to transition the property in pieces to “industrial and multi-family uses,” according to the online media outlet Axios Phoenix, which first broke the story Apr. 12.

Leroy Gessmann, the executive director of the Arizona Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (AZHBPA), told TDN in a Wednesday phone interview that a longer-term hope involves Arizona Downs, 82 miles north in Prescott Valley, being potentially sold to 1/ST Racing & Gaming, which might then pick up enough dates to sustain a circuit.

The possible sale of Arizona Downs to 1/ST Racing has been percolating since last year. 1/ST Racing owns Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita Park, Golden Gate Fields, Pimlico Race Course and Laurel Park. The firm’s chief executive officer, Aidan Butler, did not return a voicemail message seeking confirmation of 1/ST Racing’s involvement prior to deadline for this story.

Arizona Downs didn’t apply for a June-through-September race meet this year because of financial difficulties. That facility formerly ran as Yavapai Downs between 2000 and 2010. The ownership at that time then filed for bankruptcy.

“I understand that [1/ST Racing] has a contract with Arizona Downs, and they’re kind of in the same stages,” Gessmann said. “They’re going through their due diligence right now. I know [1/ST Racing] wants to continue racing at Arizona Downs. How it all ends up, we’re all in kind of a holding pattern here to see how things develop.”

The relationship between the Arizona racing community and Jerry Simms, Turf Paradise’s owner for 23 years, has been acrimonious. An extraordinarily long pandemic closure, multiple racetrack safety issues, and prolonged fights over off-track betting privileges, simulcast signals, and how the horsemen’s purse money can be used have roiled in the courts and at racing commission meetings.

Simms has been quoted in the press since 2020 as saying that he operates Turf Paradise at a “huge negative” financially. He quipped to Axios Phoenix this week that “I’d rather spend time with my grandkids” than continue running the track.

Axios Phoenix reported that James Watson, the managing partner of CT Realty out of Dallas and Newport Beach, California, said he’s “under contract” with Simms to purchase the property. Neither Simms nor Watson would provide Axios Phoenix with details of their negotiations, citing a confidentiality agreement.

Gessmann told TDN it’s evident by what’s happening around the track that the deal is getting nearer to closing.

“Mr. Watson is going through his due diligence,” Gessmann said. “The last couple weeks there have been companies here inspecting things, doing ground tests, and I know they’re also working on rezoning possibilities.

“Our understanding is it’s going to be developed in stages, and they’re going to race for one to two, [maybe] three more years depending on the development process,” Gessmann continued. “With both parcels of land, I think they’re right at 200 acres. There’s a lot of empty ground here. They’re going to start with the empty ground and then work towards the racing operation, I guess.

“We hope Mr. Watson will continue racing for a couple of years until we can make other arrangements,” Gessmann said.

“The horsemen are somewhat excited, yet also disappointed,” Gessmann said. “We’re excited that Mr. Simms is moving on and relinquishing his hold in Turf Paradise. However, Mr. Watson is unsure on the future of racing, which is a possibility we all knew when it went up for sale, that it could get sold to a land developer.”

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