Curtis Spicer

Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015

‘Sport of Kings’ struggles to maintain relevance

When Turf Paradise opened its doors in 1956, crowds flocked to the state’s first horse racing track.

Naysayers had doubted the venue could attract many visitors to the parcel of barren desert near 19th Avenue and Bell Road in Phoenix. But the 260-acre track, now surrounded by a Wal-Mart and sprawling suburbs, has persevered throughout the years.

It’s seen its share of changes – renovations, new owners, area growth. Turf Paradise’s owners have had to adjust to changing audiences: They have watched onsite attendance tank. But even as casinos and daily fantasy sports sites blast consumers with ads, people still bet on their favorite horses. They’re just more likely to do so away from the track.

Elizabeth Bracken, an associate coordinator of the University of Arizona’s race track industry program, said the track has lost some of its luster.

From 1998 until 2006, Turf would average more than 320,000 people annually who came to watch live racing. In following years up until 2014, attendance has declined to about 240,000 each year, according to Arizona Department of Racing annual reports.

“I used to go there all the time as a kid,” she said. “It was a great place to be. The crowds look nothing like that now, though.”

With a declining live audience comes a decline in live races. In 2006, Turf held 1,375 races but in 2014, live races dropped to 1,112.

Stephen Nolan, a local horse racing agent who has represented jockeys nationwide and internationally, said it’s not just the crowds that have disappeared. He said he has fewer jockeys to represent because they’ve moved to other states to chase larger purses and to build name recognition at more popular venues.

“They don’t want to stay here because they don’t think there’s a future in it for them,” Nolan said.

Still, some local racing insiders said the competition works to their advantage – making Turf Paradise into a stepping stone for larger markets. Others want to restore the industry’s prestige in Arizona, therefore boosting excitement and making horse racing the premiere attraction it once was.

Gamblers move away from the track

When Turf Paradise opened, it made “Valley history as the first organized professional sports franchise in Arizona,” according to the track’s website.

Turf Paradise remains the primary horseracing track in Arizona with Prescott’s Yavapai Downs bankrupt and Tucson’s Rillito Park focusing more on youth soccer. Turf bears the standard for Arizona horse racing, but that standard is shifting away from the track and toward the screen.

Turf’s handle, or the total money wagered on an event, for an on-track race was about $56 million in 2006. That number fell to $24 million by 2014.

However, bets placed at off-track locations – either by phone or through an off-track betting site – are up from $66 million in 2006, to $92 million in 2014.

Adjusting to new audiences

Outside of the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown, the sport largely goes unnoticed to mainstream audiences, and Bracken said she thinks easily accessible ways to bet are largely to blame.

“You can just to drive 30 or 40 minutes to a casino or do fantasy on your phone,” she said. “I can see why horses don’t have the same appeal.”

Though with more than a thousand races to run between October and May, Turf Paradise still keeps busy attracting those interested in live entertainment.

Mike Scerbo, social media coordinator at Turf Paradise, said he’s been tasked with building the next generation of fans by reaching them through Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

Turf Paradise has a few thousand followers on these accounts, and Scerbo said these sites are the best way to communicate since horse racing hasn’t made regular news headlines like it did in the 1950s.

“We are managing to defy gravity,” Scerbo said. “We do have an advantage that there is a strong horse culture here, but we need to keep telling people who moved here recently about us.”

For a few dollars, people can watch one of the earliest forms of competition for cheap in comparison to purchasing tickets to another professional sport, Scerbo said. But he said he’s still looking for another hook to bring people to the racetrack.

“I keep watch on social media for the next big thing,” Scerbo said. “I monitor accounts so we can engage directly with fans. Anything I can keep doing along those lines, I’m all for it.”

Bracken said Arizona will struggle to keep young trainers or attract new ones if the state doesn’t implement more friendly gambling policies. Turf offers ways to set up wagers through an online portal, but users must complete the wagers over the phone by state law.

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Online-only services, like one offered through Television Games Network, remains banned, leaving Arizona out of the loop while breeders and gamblers wager elsewhere, Bracken said. For a track like Del Mar in California, betting with an online account through the network sustains the operation, she said.

“It’s a little archaic,” Bracken said. “If you don’t have access to (Television Games Network) in your cable package, then you can’t really watch while you bet over the phone. With a (Television Games Network) online account, you can stream races live and bet online so for the consumer, that makes more sense.”

Other tracks, such as Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico, Remington Park in Oklahoma, and Canterbury Park in Minnesota, have casino partnerships and are known as “racinos,” Scerbo said.

Bracken said that means even if horse races aren’t profitable, the other gambling revenues, such as revenue from poker or slots, can help make up for losses.

Vince Francia, general manager of Turf Paradise, said a casino partnership with the racetrack remains a possible – yet distant – goal.

“That’s something we would like, a lot,” Francia said. “Casinos boost purses for the horsemen and the states benefit from more taxes, too.”

Such a partnership could be beneficial, but Nolan said he’s still skeptical since there is so much gambling competition in Arizona already.

“To me, casino gaming is a Band-Aid anyhow,” Nolan said. “I don’t think they do much to bring people out to the track. People putting money into slots does contribute to horsemen’s purses, though. There’s no denying that.”

Efforts to establish racinos in Arizona have failed to make it out of the state Legislature.

One way the track has stayed alive is through off-track simulcasts, said Vince Francia, general manager of Turf Paradise.

“The money made from off-track bets offsets the cost of us hosting and running races,” Francia said.

According to Arizona Department of Racing figures, there were 3,244 off-track simulcasts of races shown in casinos and tracks statewide in 1998. That number climbed to 52,500 in 2014.

The 65 off-track betting sites in the state serve as a more convenient way to bet, and more importantly, Francia said they help grow demographics and give gamblers a sense of place within their respective suburbs.

Off-track audiences totaled about 480,000 in 2014, nearly double what live audiences were, according to the department.

“It’s akin to the Cheers theme song ‘Where Everybody Knows Your Name’,” Francia said. “People going out near Cave Creek and Sun City are going to be older than the people in their 20s and 30s going out in Tempe.”

Serving as a stepping stone

Patrick Fields, a 32-year-old trainer who has raced in Arizona for four years, said he got his start when he bought a mare originally purchased at $22,000 a year ago for only $500 because of impatient owners.

“I took a chance on her, and she did well enough for me,” he said. “I still have her and won two races with her.”

Mike Gochnour, a stable hand who tends to horses for Fields and other trainers, said breeding and racing a horse from Arizona is cheaper compared to more established states.

“In California, there’s going to be million dollar horses waiting if you want to run against them,” Gochnour said. “Times are different now.”

For Gochnour, lower stakes mean more opportunities to win. He said Turf’s races make for an enjoyable challenge to scout for horses that would otherwise run under the radar.

“If you can get a horse for $2,000 and win a purse for $6,000, isn’t that the whole point?” Gochnour said. “Here, you can do that a lot easier.”

Fields takes care of the horses, he now owns three of them, at the racetrack barns. He said if he was smaller, he would’ve like to have raced too.

“That was a dream I had until I was like 11 or 12 until I realized I was bigger than the jockeys,” he said. ”But I still love it, and you really get to know the culture and the people around here. These are the kind of places where you see the same people all the time.”

Fields started training with his family in Minnesota, but he said he likes being at Turf because of the weather and relaxed lifestyle. Since the track operates during what most consider the racing off season, the industry as a whole quiets down, resulting in weaker stakes.

“In the summer, the purses are a lot higher,” he said. “In Minnesota, they do more to promote the event with the casinos, so more people come.”

While he likes to race in Arizona, he said he still views the state as a stepping stone to greener pastures.

“I know it’s a Monday, but just look around here and you can tell,” Fields said while pointing at empty stands. “This may not be the best place, but it is a place younger trainers like me can break into. The goal is to win, then work my way up to somewhere else, and I think I can still do it.”

Local agent raises concerns about Turf Paradise

Nolan said he is proud to represent jockeys and trainers at Turf Paradise because he lives and works in Arizona.

But he said he’s fed up with the track.

He’s tried to raise concerns about labor wages and declines in attendance by printing out numbers from the Arizona Department of Racing and passing them out to trainers, owners and jockeys.

“I’ve been in this industry all my life,” Nolan said. “This is not a good place to race. It’s just home for me. People in this state don’t know about horse racing because it’s such a minor thing.”

Francia said he asked Nolan to stop distributing information to the horsemen and owners.

On Oct. 30, Turf security stopped Nolan and called the police when Nolan didn’t comply with requests to leave. Police later arrested Nolan on suspicion of trespassing.

“We didn’t ask for him to be arrested, but he refused to leave,” Francia said.

Nolan said he anticipated pushback from Turf management but not to the point of being banned from his place of work.

Nolan also filed complaints alleging open meetings violations against Arizona Racing Commissioner Jay McClintock, Commissioner Tom Lawless and Turf Paradise owner Jerry Simms for conversing at the Armadillo Grill, an off-track betting site.

Amanda Jacinto, a spokeswoman for the Department of Gaming, said Nolan’s complaint and documents have been sent to the Office of Boards and Commissions as well as the Attorney General. Neither department returned a request for comment.

“Obviously, we take those claims seriously,” Jacinto said. “We took all his information and passed it on. It is not within our power to review them and address the issue ourselves.”

Francia said there is nothing wrong with the actions of Simms or the commissioners, as they live near the grill.

“They don’t discuss business,” Francia said. “They’re handicapping, which is just industry-speak for analyzing the horse race.”

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