Turf Paradise being sold to real estate developer; racing not immediately threatened

Turf Paradise, the Phoenix racetrack that has struggled financially and operationally over the past five years, is in the process of being sold to a California real estate developer who has partnered with a racetrack official with experience in operating historical horse-racing machines.

James Watson, the managing partner of CT Realty, confirmed on Wednesday that he has reached an agreement to buy the track from Jerry Simms, who has owned the track for 23 years, along with several partners. One of those partners is Revolutionary Racing, a company that bought Colonial Downs in Virginia in 2018 for $20 million just after the state legislature approved historical horse-racing machines at the track and its off-track betting parlors.

Watson confirmed the sale in a telephone conversation on Wednesday that was also conducted with Larry Lucas, a managing partner in Revolutionary Racing. He declined to provide details about the purchase agreement.

“We’re a national real estate development company, and we’re intrigued by the racing element,” Watson said.

Lucas, who has a long track record in racing and account-wagering companies, said that he has begun discussions with members of the Arizona Legislature on changes to existing state law that could benefit Turf Paradise and racing in the state.

“We’re very early in the process, so we can’t go into details on that,” Lucas said. “As you know, racing is hanging on by a thread here, and we all the know the capital investment that is needed for [Turf Paradise] to make racing a success here.”

Watson said he expected the sale to close in late summer, prior to Turf Paradise opening its 2023-2024 meet. He said that next year’s meet would go on as scheduled, with Revolutionary Racing acting as the operating company, while the real estate arm of the partnership works on plans to develop the “excess” real estate along Turf Paradise’s perimeter.

The sale includes 213 acres, of which “about half” is used for racing operations, Watson said.

Turf Paradise opened in 1956 on a property that was at the time on the northern edge of Phoenix. The metropolitan area of Phoenix has expanded rapidly over the past four decades, and the track is now surrounded by commercial and residential real estate along the I-17 corridor, stretching north for miles.

Simms, who bought the track in 2000, has aggressively lobbied for casino-type gambling at the track for decades, but his efforts have gone nowhere in the face of opposition from Native American tribes that operate dozens of casinos throughout the state, including several on the edge of the Phoenix metro area. Simms did not return a phone call on Wednesday.

The track’s fortunes have seemed to decline every year recently. Track officials have openly feuded with their horsemen in the past five years, and a conflict with 1/ST Racing, the large racing company, cost Turf Paradise the simulcast signals from the company’s tracks for several years.

Leroy Gessman, the executive director of the Arizona Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said on Wednesday that Watson had told the horsemen he planned to develop the property in “phases” and that racing would continue at the track for “one, two, or possibly three more years,” Gessman said.

Gessman also said that the horsemen have been in discussions with “a couple of other groups” about the possibility of opening a new track in the Phoenix area. Gessman declined to identify any of those groups.

“We’re confident that we will have live racing in Phoenix in the future,” Gessman said.

Turf has traditionally held a six-month racing season over the mild winter and spring months. The track’s horsemen are generally a mix of local trainers and horsemen who run in the Pacific Northwest or Midwest in the summer months.

Lucas said that CT Realty and Revolutionary Racing have involved the track’s horsemen in their discussions since the sale talks began in earnest in February.

“We’ve been very active with the horsemen here,” Lucas said. “We’ve had discussions with them at length.”

After buying Colonial Downs for $20 million in 2018 and successfully reopening the track the next year, Revolutionary Racing’s stake in the track was sold last year to Churchill Downs as part of a deal to buy substantially all of the gambling assets of Pacific Peninsula, which was Revolutionary Racing’s partner in the Virginia project.

Last year, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission approved Revolutionary Racing’s bid for the last racing license in Kentucky, and it has begun construction on a Quarter Horse track, equestrian center, and casino in the state. Only licensed racetracks are allowed to operate casinos in Kentucky.