02/24/2006 12:00AM

After 50 years, oasis of racing still thrives

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Turf Paradise
A crowd of about 7,500 witnessed the opening-day card at Turf Paradise on Jan. 7, 1956.

PHOENIX - It was dry and barren and at least 15 miles from the nearest civilization, connected only by dirt roads and distant rumors. On paper, the idea of a first-class racetrack a long drive from anywhere was a little crazy, but that did not matter to Walter Cluer, a man whose successful millwork and manufacturing operations had made him one of the most respected businessmen in the burgeoning town of Phoenix, Arizona's capital city.

The year was 1954, a time when Arizona was mostly desert and Indian reservation, known primarily for such colorfully wild Western towns as Tombstone, Tucson, and Yuma, along with a very grand canyon.

Cluer, an Idaho emigr? who arrived in 1926, stirred local attention with the purchase of 1,400 acres in Paradise Valley, out there in rural, unincorporated Phoenix around Bell Road and 19th Avenue. This was old-fashioned speculation at its best, for Cluer was counting on city growth to sprawl in his direction. He envisioned housing tracts and shopping centers, the natural by-products of the post-World War II suburban boom in the Southwest. But in truth, his fondest dreams were reserved for his true passions, rodeos and racehorses.

So begins the story of Turf Paradise, the $2.5 million facility built by Cluer that opened on Jan. 7, 1956, to rave reviews and a degree of national attention. As the first major sporting franchise in Arizona, Turf Paradise put Phoenix on the winter racing map alongside Miami, Havana, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. And even though it never could compete with the opulence of places like Hialeah and Santa Anita, Turf Paradise was one of the top draws in a town on the rise.

"Track promoters have gone to great lengths catering to spectator comforts," wrote Frank Gianelli, sports editor of the Arizona Republic.

"Grandstand rows are spacious, and contour benches are of splinter-proof hickory," he went on. "The clubhouse is sheer luxury, with

deep-pile rugs, and lounge chairs which swivel so fans can follow a whole race without standing." A crowd of about 7,500 attended that first Turf Paradise program.

Fifty years and four ownerships downstream from the Cluer years, Turf Paradise is celebrating its golden anniversary with its current meeting, spanning the last three months of 2005 and well into May of 2006. That is a long haul of 165 racing days, a U.S. figure topped only by the we-never-close West Virginia tracks and the marathon meets of Pennsylvania, Thistledown, and the combined Calder meets.

The good news is that the current Turf Paradise season is enjoying a happy array of business trends, including a 12 percent in-state handle increase and a comparable increase in purses, amounting to $1.5 million.

The other news, neither good nor bad, is that Turf Paradise is a track that continues to hold its breath, waiting for that "next big thing" promised by a succession of owners since Walter Cluer sold to Phoenix contractor Herb Owens in 1976.

The Owens years, not surprisingly, were marked by physical changes, primarily the addition of a turf club and the installation of a grass course. This caught the eye of Southern California horsemen, always on the lookout for alternate sources of revenue, especially for grass horses a cut below the usual monsters roaming Santa Anita during the 1980's.

In 1989, Owens sold Turf Paradise to aerospace entrepreneur Robert Walker. His first order of business was a push for offtrack betting, to be controlled by the racetrack, and enabling legislation was passed in 1991. But soon after, the enticing specter of slot machines began to loom, promising to make any offtrack betting revenue look like chump change. Racetracks everywhere became magnets for slots speculators, and Turf Paradise was no different. Pinnacle Entertainment, the casino-style gambling entity formed by R.D. Hubbard's Hollywood Park company, bought Turf Paradise in 1994 from Walker, banking on the passage of slot machine legislation, just as Walter Cluer had rolled the dice on those 1,400 acres 40 years earlier.

It never happened. Arizona's politically powerful Native American tribes rose up against racetrack slots, and that was that. Since Pinnacle was not really interested in a racetrack without slots, Turf Paradise went on the market once again in 1999.

Enter Jerry Simms, a self-made multimillionaire from Southern California, who had made his money in cars, banking, and real estate. It was the 275 acres that came with the racetrack franchise that put the hook in Simms, but, as a recent Phoenix settler, he was intrigued by the prospect of rejuvenating an Arizona institution like Turf Paradise. With three minority stake partners along for the ride, Simms put up $30 million of his own cash toward the $53 million purchase price.

The Simms backstory is compelling. He was a middle-class kid raised in the Rancho Park area of West L.A. who dropped out of high school to care for his ailing mother, then bucked the odds and made it big, a real Horatio Alger tale.

But it was his tangential association with some guys who knew some guys who did business with some guys (the old-fashioned Las Vegas casino kind of guys) that interested the Arizona racing and gaming boards more than his credentials as a founder of the Mercantile Bank. There were even suggestions that something was afoul because of his open friendship with the drug-plagued jockey Patrick Valenzuela. As a result, Simms underwent a blistering period of scrutiny - both by the licensing boards and the local press - before he was free and clear to own and operate the state's most famous racing business.

Today, Simms does not exactly look back on the ordeal with a light-hearted laugh. A shake of the head is more like it. Sitting at his regular table in the casual, comfortable club room of the track's turf club on a recent Saturday afternoon, Simms recalled that at least there was some good news amid all the unproven allegations.

"For the first time in several years, Turf Paradise was on the front page of the papers nearly every day," Simms said. "I remember walking around the track and hearing whispers. I couldn't wear dark glasses for fear of appearing shady."

Once the licensing process ended and Simms was able to take full control, he set about fulfilling a pre-purchase promise to spend $5 million on renovations of the racetrack's threadbare clubhouse and catering service.

"I saw no reason people couldn't come here and eat well," Simms said. "We brought in our own chefs. Everything is prepared fresh. And I think our fans appreciated it. You can't tell me someone can't tell the difference between pressed turkey and the real thing."

The Simms team has done its best to bring a 50-year-old facility into the modern simulcast era, which only makes sense, since simulcast revenue is the fuel that keeps a small, regional track like Turf Paradise afloat.

What truly sets Turf Paradise apart, however, is its mastery of the offtrack betting model, a setup that should be the envy of every state where slot machines have yet to save the day.

Turf Paradise, as the state's major racing entity, is allowed to choose offtrack sites among any number of restaurants, clubs, and taverns, so long as local municipalities approve. The track staffs the betting windows and maintains the equipment. The bar/restaurant gets a commission, the state gets its cut, and then the track splits the bulk of the takeout pie with its horsemen.

There are about 60 offtrack sites around the state, with several more about to come online. Phoenix itself has 14 plus another dozen or so in such suburbs as Tempe, Glendale, Cave Creek, Surprise, Apache Junction, Goodyear, and Peoria.

The difference between an OTB in a familiar eatery as opposed to a stand-alone parlor or an idle racetrack is like night and day. In a word, it is far more civilized to be able to go for a good burger, a cold beer, and a convenient bet. For example:

Padre Murphy's is a full-service sports bar tucked into a corner of a large strip mall in the 4300 block of West Bell Road, barely 10 minutes from the Turf Paradise. It is flanked on one side by a Checker Auto Works and on the other by the Bell Animal & Bird Clinic. Inside, horseplayers are scattered throughout the roomy environment, sharing table space and dozens of TV screens with other sporting enthusiasts. The OTB windows are located off to the side, not far from a pair of pool tables, clearly marked and very much a part of the main room.

Big Daddy's Bar & Grill, just past the intersection of East Dunlop and Cave Creek, is a classic neighborhood hangout where sunlight rarely intrudes and everybody seems to know everybody else's name. It's about a 10th the size of Padre Murphy's, and shares the streetside storefront of a low-rise building that also houses Mu Chan National Martial Arts and an eatery called Teriyaki China, proud of its "fast food." The OTB windows have their own entrance, in an anteroom just off the L-shaped bar. The main room is appointed with all the usual decorating suspects, including three pool tables, neon beer signs, and a big-screen TV holding court between two electronic dart games.

The final stop on an OTB mini-tour was the Armadillo Grill on Camelback Road, across the street from a Best Buy and a Men's Wearhouse, and a good 20-minute drive from the racetrack. Light and airy, with lots of glass looking out onto a patio dining area, this was clearly a family-friendly place despite the three-sided bar dominating the center of the high-ceilinged room. A pair of very permanent-looking OTB windows stood sentry alongside a handful of video arcade games, just to the right of the entrance.

Since Simms lives only a few blocks away in the Biltmore Estates, the Armadillo Grill is his OTB of choice, and there he was, late last Sunday afternoon, necktie shed and taking in the last few races on the day's menu of betting opportunities alongside Bill Strauss, a veteran horseplayer and former racetrack exec who hosts a weekend racing radio show.

"I'm alive to the 1 and the 5 in the pick three at Santa Anita," Simms said, as a field moved toward the gate on the nearest monitor.

Simms is game to bet on anything but Turf Paradise events, which he considers a conflict of interest. He roots for the favorite because, as far as he is concerned, more winners in each race mean more handle from his ontrack and simulcast customers in the next.

"I try to visit as many of the OTB sites as I can," Simms said, "although this one is in my backyard. Some of the sites don't do as well as others. And, frankly, there are a few that we'll probably be closing. We evaluate them all the time.

"In the beginning, the rule of thumb was no OTB's closer than five miles from each other," Simms noted. "We've adjusted that to account for different demographic pockets that might exist closer to each other than five miles. We want to make the racing product available to as many people as possible."

The idea that offtrack betting has cannibalized ontrack business is a quaint notion in Arizona, and not really applicable. The greater metropolitan area of Phoenix is spread out over more than 400 square miles, with the bulk of the population well to the south and east of the racetrack. Putting the game in familiar neighborhood establishments resulted in an immediate boon to the bottom line.

Slot machines, of course, represent the holy grail to which all racetracks seem to aspire these days, and the management and horsemen of Turf Paradise are no different. But the Native American casino lobby has been tough to buck, which is why track management and horsemen are backing a bill that would legalize advance-deposit wagering right from the home.

"The OTB's have been a savior for us," said Kevin Eikleberry, a third-generation trainer and president of the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "Without that, we'd have been done a long time ago."

Like most of his fellow horsemen, Eikleberry is working with his third or fourth Turf Paradise owner, and Simms is quick to admit he is not an experienced racetracker.

"Hollywood Park, when they owned the place, didn't do much to help us," Eikleberry said. "They were here for the slots and when they didn't get them, they were gone. Jerry has to be concerned about a profit on his investment, sure. But he cares. I'll say that for him."

Turf Paradise purses can run below $5,000 for bottom-level claimers, while stakes rarely hit $100,000.

"If you put a lot of money in the stakes, you get California horses often coming over here and winning them," Simms pointed out. "I certainly don't mind that, but I'd much rather our horsemen take home the money."

As for backstretch conditions, the Turf Paradise stable area looks no better or worse than dozens of tracks around North America. The original concrete barns, built by Cluer in 1955, are still standing, many of them shaded by mature eucalyptus trees. They could use a coat of paint, and the wooden walls of the pipe-rail stalls in other areas of the backstretch are in need of replacement.

"There's a long list, and we do what we can," said Eugene Joyce, who is in his first season as general manager after holding a similar post at Lone Star Park. "As Mr. Simms has said, we can make it pretty, or we can make it safe.

I'll opt for safe any day. And the money for cosmetics, we'd rather give to the horsemen in purses."

The land developer in Simms has envisioned a master plan for the acreage surrounding the racetrack, one that will place Turf Paradise at the heart of a hopefully robust commercial center. There will be a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a Sam's Club, with improvements to the grandstand facade, a sweeping avenue fronting the racetrack, and grand entrances from both Bell Road to the north and 19th Avenue to the west. The beginning of the project has been delayed because of the hurricane-related construction shortage, but Simms is poised to break ground.

"I'm sure it will attract attention to the racetrack," Simms said. "If nothing else, shoppers will be curious to cross the street and see what's going on. That's where our future is, making the track the center of an entertainment experience."

It might just be worth the wait.