Horse racing rises from the dead in Arizona

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Ann McGovern admitted she was a little nervous.

Who wouldn’t be the first time you opened the doors to your home and threw a party for a bunch of strangers?

McGovern, the general manager of Arizona Downs, the race track which had laid dormant for nine years, was cautiously optimistic that her guests would have a good time when the eight-race card kicked off a return of racing to northern Arizona last Friday.

The meet, scheduled for 35 days, will run primarily on weekends through Labor Day. Eight races are expected for most cards with the average daily purse expected to be over $70,000, which is slightly higher than Turf Paradise in Phoenix.

The Auther brothers, Dave, Mike and Tom, along with Joe Jackson, spent $3.22 million in January 2018 to purchase the former Yavapai Downs out of bankruptcy, then spent over $7 million to bring the track back to life after it last had racing in 2010 then closed its doors in 2011 after the former owners were unable to financially operate a meet.

They’re hoping the track’s rebirth gives the state’s horse industry a much needed boost while giving bettors a chance to watch and wager on live horse racing. They’re entrusting McGovern, an industry veteran who has worked at several tracks, including Louisiana Downs, Remington Park, Sam Houston Race Park and Ruidoso Downs, to make sure everything gets done right.

And if the opening weekend was any indication, this venture has a good chance of succeeding.

The Friday crowd of approximately 2,500 appeared to have a good time (the track didn’t give an official attendance figure). There were plenty of betting windows and self-serve machines. The concessions were reasonably priced (a 16-ounce soda was $2 and you got free refills). A 16-ounce beer was $5. A quarter-pound hot dog with chips was also five bucks.

There is a children’s play area. There’s an upscale “Turf Club-style” restaurant on the third floor. The simulcast room has plenty of flat-screen TVs and lots of signals from around North America.

However, Las Vegas’ race books are not picking up the Ariziona Downs signal yet. So the only way to bet the new track is to visit Prescott Valley or go to a simulcast facility outside Nevada that does take the signal.

“If I lived in Las Vegas, I would definitely make the drive here to watch live racing,” McGovern said. “Especially during the summer. It’s 30 degrees cooler here.”

Like most hostesses, McGovern didn’t have time to appreciate what was going on inside her home as the party got underway. But she liked what she saw of racing’s rebirth in this picturesque community located some four hours from Las Vegas.

“Our owners are putting up all the money,” she said. “We don’t have a casino to supplement the purses. They want everyone to be treated with respect and have a good time when they come here.”

There were bigger crowds on Saturday. You could tell by the lines to get a bet down or purchase a beer. And bet they did.

According to figures supplied by Equibase, Friday’s on-track handle for the eight-race thoroughbred-only card was $170,800, an average per race of $21,350. Saturday, which had two quarter horse races at the end of the eight-race card, the track’s handle was higher, $173,263. The per race average bet at the track was $21,658.

Tom Auther said he was pleased with the way things have begun.

“I pretty much thought it went as expected,” he said. “A year ago, if you asked me how I felt, I would have said, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”

Auther and his brothers are real estate developers. They saw an opportunity and were willing to take the risk after talking to a friend, Corey Johnson, who is in the horse racing business.

There’s no casino money to support the track and boost the purses along with drive traffic to the facility. 

“We’re not horse guys,” he said. “We’re catching up fast on the industry. It’s been a lot of fun for us. But there’s a lot of risk involved.”

McGovern’s focus is on competitive racing where the horses and jockeys are safe. She’s well aware of the issues Santa Anita has had and that racing has taking a public relations hit as a result.

“There’s no doubt the industry has suffered some setbacks,” she said. “But we’re not about track records. We’re about safety for the horses.”

On Friday’s opening-day card, every horse crossed the finish line. The races were competitive and the meet started with 11-1 Ya Antabttsy winning the first race. Veteran announcer Michael Wrona, who has called races at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields, was at the microphone at the top of the grandstand, giving the races a big-time feel, even though they were running for $3,000 as was the case in the opener for the inaugural card.

Veteran radio talk show host Rodd Stowell had been coming to the races here for years, going back to the original Prescott Downs. He liked what he saw from Arizona Downs.

“I think it’s great what they’re doing here,” he said. “It’s going to be great for the horsemen who can stay in Arizona and not ship their horses to Colorado, New Mexico or Minnesota. They can stay in-state and it should help the industry here.”

Stowell, who lives in North Phoenix, lived and worked in Las Vegas for years. He would make the four-hour drive to Prescott Valley to watch live racing. He said for true fans of the sport, it’s worth the trip.

“No one is going to confuse this place with Saratoga or Del Mar,” he said. “But if you like going to the track, having a fun day, getting out of the heat of Vegas and not getting gouged, this is the place to come to.”

McGovern said the owners made affordability an emphasis of doing business.

“We want to provide quality while making it affordable,” she said.

McGovern is fortunate to have a suitable facility to hold racing. When Yavapai Downs closed in 2011 and the facility sat dormant, the fear was neglect and decay would ultimately render it unusable. But when the owners purchased the place and began the task of breathing new life into it, they found the structure was salvagable.

“I thought it was sad,” McGovern said of the track sitting dormant. “It was a beautiful facility in a wonderful community. There are these amazing views of the mountains. It was a shame to see it go to waste.”

But some hard work and $7 million later, the track has come back to life. It has created hundreds of jobs and provided an entertainment option in an area that has lots of things to do.

Parking is free. It costs just $2 to get in. There is plenty of free seating available. The staff has been well-trained in customer service, anticipating potential problems and are in a position to solve them right away.

The family-oriented atmosphere and promotions on the weekends, including Weiner Dog races (July 20) and a big Labor Day Weekend of racing are some of the highlights to the inaugural meet.

“I’m not sure I have a silver bullet,” McGovern said of helping change people’s views of horse racing and developing new customers. “But you have to make sure you have a good product, a clean, well-run facility and make sure people have a good impression of you.”

Her owners are committed to making it work.

“We don’t have any choice but to be in it for the long haul,” Auther said. “There was a lot of skepticism from the community given the past. But we believe this can work and when you walk around, you can see this was worth keeping around.”

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About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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