The Memorial Day weekend could have been a downer. Before the holiday weekend even began came the news of the loss of respected horseman J.J. Crupi, who died May 23 in Maryland at the age of 79. We remember him first from his training days, winning races "down the Shore" at Monmouth Park in the late 1980s. He later found his true calling as a developer of young horses at his New Castle Farm in Central Florida, where he developed classic winners and champions and was always quick to tell you "there is no hassle at the Castle."
Also, there were more equine fatalities at Santa Anita Park, where there's been a steady drumbeat of disappointing reports since the meet began back on Dec. 26. Social media and local outlets continue to be unkind to the track's owners, The Stronach Group, who also took a barrage of arrows following the May 18 Preakness Stakes (G1) at their crumbling Pimlico Race Course.
However, among the dark clouds we can see a few patches of sun. The Thoroughbred industry counts on the promise of finding a winner tomorrow.
In Prescott, Ariz., Arizona Downs opened its doors May 24, ushering in an enthusiastic crowd of racing fans that have been left on the hook since the former Yavapai Downs closed in 2010. It's not every day a new racing facility opens. We're fortunate there will also be another when racing returns to Virginia later this summer at Colonial Downs.
"Us, along with Colonial Downs, are two of the bright spots in racing right now," said Arizona Downs general manager Ann McGovern. "Everyone has been very supportive; the owners are very supportive of the industry."
Tom, Dave, and Mike Auther, along with Joe Jackson, who are principals of JACOR Partners in Phoenix, with the help of Corey Johnsen, closed on the purchase of the racetrack property last year and have been in full cry in order to return live racing to the area. It's a bold move to invest in a seasonal, 35-day-meet track in the high desert between Phoenix and Flagstaff. However, it has the potential to nurture a full-year circuit in Arizona to complement the Turf Paradise stand in Phoenix that runs from October to May.
"They are the most amazing owners," said McGovern, who formerly ran Kentucky Downs in western Kentucky. "They saw the opportunity. The track is a welcomed business in Prescott. Everyone in town has been asking, ‘When are you going to open?' "
Racing in Arizona is a tough sell. Without purse support from the casinos operated by Native Americans in the state, it's difficult for someone in the business to scratch out a living. The team at Arizona Downs has to position the sport differently, gearing business more toward families and entertainment. Oddly enough, they have also faced a few hurdles from Turf Paradise.
"There's been a lack of understanding," McGovern said. "Our success will translate to statewide success with a strong, year-round circuit, which should translate to success at Turf Paradise. That synergy could be developed, but Turf Paradise's owners don't seem to understand that."
Arizona Downs is located about eight miles from downtown Prescott, a Southwest outpost of some 45,000 located a few hours north and west of Phoenix where the searing desert sun prohibits most outdoor activity in the afternoons during the summer. The track has a "vacationy" feel to it, according to McGovern.
Track management was ambitious with a four-day stand as a hard opener to kick off the meet May 24-27.
"Opening for four days the first weekend was a challenge for our racing office and the horsemen, but they have done a great job; we'll move to a two-day schedule for the remainder of the meet," she said. "Things have gone really well overall. We've had great crowds that have been very enthusiastic. Sure there are things that need improving, but, hopefully, they are the things the average patron doesn't see. The staff here is pretty lean-we have six or seven managers and about 100 seasonal
"But you can't have a better atmosphere-the fans have been passionate; they're leaving here in a good mood. We want people to leave here happy."