When an athlete announces they’re retiring to spend more time with family, the show goes on for the rest of the league. If only that were true for Phoenix’s iconic Turf Paradise horse track.
The track announced that owner Jerry Simms was retiring after 23 years to spend more time with his family. And with that announcement, the track said it would stop operations on Oct. 1.
Turf Paradise announced it on their website, saying:
“The owner of Turf Paradise, Jerry Simms, announced today that after 23 years of operating the race track, he is retiring to spend more time with his family. There will be no more live racing or simulcasting at the Phoenix-based race track, beginning October 1, 2023.”
Turf Paradise’s future has been in limbo since the spring, and while the decision to close isn’t necessarily a surprise, it’s still a sad moment for Arizona horse racing.
Lack of funding led to Turf Paradise’s closure
Like many horse tracks around the country, Turf Paradise thrived during the heyday of horse racing.
Over the past two decades, the industry has seen a sharp decline in betting handle and a halving of the number of races run each year.
Tracks were in jeopardy of closing and, in some cases, lawmakers took action. Some states help supplement the industry with tax revenue. For example, New York has sent more than $3 billion in subsidies to its tracks.
Other states like Kentucky have legalized historic horse racing (HHR) machines. Tracks install the machines and use the revenue to fund their operations. In Kentucky, money gambled on HHRs rose from just under $1 billion in 2017 to more than $3.5 billion in 2021.
Unfortunately for Turf Paradise, neither subsidies nor HHRs came to the rescue.
The track had to cancel its summer racing season due to money issues, a move that foreshadowed what would happen this week. Furthermore, Turf Paradise announced this past month it canceled its fall racing season, too.
Simms was in negotiations to find a new owner for the track as recently as last week. According to a letter shared by WSFA 12, the Turf Paradise Director of Mutuels Frank Abbate wrote to the track’s network of off-track betting (OTB) sites and said:
“There are two new prospective buyers who are interested in buying the track, and if one of them buys Turf Paradise, they will keep it a racetrack and continue to run live racing on a yearly basis.”
Fans of the track pour out support, good memories on Facebook
The track posted its closure announcement on its Facebook page, a move that drew hundreds of comments, many of which lamented the loss of the legendary facility.
Several commenters expressed their sadness and hearkened back to their childhood memories of going to the track with relatives.
“So many great memories at Turf Paradise with my Papa (grandpa),” commenter Taylor Gargiulo wrote on Facebook. “He owned racehorses and I loved being around him and all of his gambling buddies. This is really sad to see.”
OTB closures contradict the letter sent out earlier this month
Turf Paradise runs 37 off-track betting (OTB) sites throughout the state. The locations televise live racing from Turf Paradise as well as simulcasts of races in Arizona and beyond.
Because the track is shutting down, all 37 OTB sites have to close, too.
“In order for the OTB sites to operate, live racing is required. Since Turf Paradise will not be running a live race meet…the OTBs will have to close effective October 1,” the track said in its statement.
Interestingly, Abbate’s letter told OTBs that, if the track wasn’t sold, the OTBs would continue to operate via Tuscon’s Rillito Racetrack.
However, because Turf Paradise didn’t renew its contract with the Arizona Horseman’s Benevolent & Protective Association, its OTBs were not allowed to simulcast live racing.