Tumultuous Turf Paradise

Who says the print media is dead? An investigative report by the Arizona Republic, claims Jeremy and Ronald Simms, brothers feuding about the control of Turf Paradise Racetrack in Arizona, could be jeopardizing the future of the state’s horse racing industry by reducing track business and race purses. (The report is here http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-investigations/2017/05/14/turf-paradise-feud-jerry-simms-ronald-simms-horse-racing-thoroughbreds/97308762/)

That’s a good one. Track owners killing racing. Who’d have thought?

I’ve been to Arizona many, many times, and I have family there. I’ve always had some difficulty trying to describe the politics in Arizona. They had a bad run of elected Governors  when Evan Mecham and Fife Symington were indicted, and one of the more underwhelming Governors in their history in Jan Brewer, who ascended to the governorship after Janet Napolitano bolted for the Obama Administration.

I have a funny aside about Governor Jane Dee Hull, the Secretary of State who moved into the Governor’s office after Fife Symington resigned. I was at a state dinner when, unknown to some of us, Governor Hull was called away after the speeches because part of Northern Arizona was on fire. Once the diners were finished, a band took the stage and the bar was open. Someone propped a smiling, life-sized cardboard cutout of the Governor on the side of the stage, looking at the band admiringly. A few songs and a few drinks into the festivities and one of the people with us says, “She hasn’t moved the whole time she’s been on the stage.” He wouldn’t believe it was a cardboard cutout until he got up close to the stage and saw it for himself. Anyway…

In a lot of ways Arizona is still a “good old boy” state (or good old gal if you count Rose Mofford, Jane Dee Hull, and Jan Brewer) and the Racing Commission fits that bill. The racing commissioners are probably more typical than not of the composition of racing commissions.  If you read their posted bios, you have to wonder how many long time race-goers are just as qualified to be a racing commissioner.  You have an estate planning/corporate lawyer who is a “fan” of thoroughbred racing. There is a financial advisor who has owned horses. A greyhound guy (which is not a bad thing if you are a state with greyhound racing). And another fan who owned horses. No medication experts. No veterinarians. But some good friends of Jerry Simms.

According to the Republic, “two commissioners — Tom Lawless and Jay McClintock — acknowledge close personal ties with Jerry. They socialize at Turf Paradise and one another’s homes. They hang out regularly at an off-track betting bar on Camelback Road, near their homes. A third commissioner, Chairman Rory Goreé, employed one of Jerry’s attorneys for personal legal matters.”

This is not so uncommon either. It’s not unusual for the qualifications of the racing commissioners to be thin, and the relationship between the racing commission and the track management to be, well, let’s just say very friendly.

And would people be shocked that Jerry Simms contributed $15-$20K a year to political campaigns, more in big election years?

You can’t make this stuff up. Again according to the Republic,

“Ron Simms points to his sibling’s past role in a California political-corruption sting, and to financial dealings with a former mob-tied casino operator. Ron alleges Jerry misappropriated millions of dollars from Turf Paradise while using Arizona courts, politicians and prosecutors in a “secret backdoor scheme” to cheat him.”

For his part, Jerry Simms managed to get his brother declared an undesirable with regard to track ownership by the racing commission over the findings of an administrative law judge who found Ron to be a decent man and a victim of a smear campaign by “the Jerry Group.”

Inspiring family, eh?

All I can say, is if we’re depending on a couple of racing fans and a greyhound guy to sort all this out, we may be placing unrealistic expectations on them.  But clearly something is wrong. By every statistic the Republic was able to provide, Arizona racing is in big trouble.

As might be expected, Jerry Simms and Vince Fancia, General Manager of Turf Paradise, offered the same explanations we hear from most track officials. Blame goes to an industry-wide slump that has closed many tracks, Indian casinos have siphoned away gambling dollars, and a shortage of thoroughbred horses has forced tracks nationwide to run fewer races.

But Turf Paradise also insists it is thriving with special promotions such as wiener dog races and a Kentucky Derby Party.  General Manager Francia added, “There is no impact between the Simms brothers’ litigation and the vitality of the Arizona horse-race industry and the future of Turf Paradise.”

I believe that is code for, of course a feud over the way the track is managed and by whom will have an effect on racing. It certainly stretches credulity to insist that sort of distraction is irrelevant.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest the weiner dog races are not the answer racing has been searching for.

Turf Paradise is not alone, either as a track in trouble because of the state of racing or as a place where the regulated and the regulators have unnaturally close relationships. We cannot expect the kinds of conditions at Turf Paradise – and plenty of other tracks for that matter – to always lead to decisions that are in the best interests of the horseplayers. In Arizona, there is at least the appearance that what Jerry Simms wants, Jerry Simms gets, and anyone who gets in his way, even his brother, may suffer as a result.

The money Arizona is spending on legal fees will ultimately result in the state wondering if it is worth it just to have horse racing in Arizona. According to the Republic, in just three years, the state has paid $739,248 to private lawyers representing the Department of Gaming in connection with the Simms controversy, according to agency records, with some of that money coming  from racing purses. It won’t take long at those rates for the State to get fed up with the situation, and it is hard to say how they will react when they do.

Arizona, and plenty of other states, need to come to a frank realization that as you turn over the racing commissions to people whose only chance to succeed involves overcoming a long and steep learning curve, especially when racing is in the midst of a crisis as bad as it has ever seen, is a surefire way to ensure the conditions that led to the crisis do not improve. We need racing commissions that are not so intertwined with track ownership that that they are unable to make decisions in the best interest of the other stakeholder groups – racegoers, owners, trainers – instead of reliably putting track ownership ahead of them. We need racing commissions that adequately represent the gamut of stakeholders. We need racing commissioners who come to the job with knowledge in the areas in which they are asked to make decisions.  We need racing commissions that can think outside of the box when that sort of thinking is necessary.

The situation at Turf Paradise may provide us with some comedic relief, but the issues are deadly serious. And if horseplayers and horsemen continue to put up with it, then they deserve nothing more than what they’ve been getting.