08/03/2001 12:00AM

Oasis in a green desert


Prescott Valley, Ariz. - Jim Grundy stands in the clubhouse overlooking his new track, Yavapai Downs, like a father looking at his new child. At the same time he is beaming with pride, he is frantically keeping an eye out for danger.

"I couldn't be more proud," said Grundy, general manager of the mile racetrack that opened here May 26. "We took a project that should have taken us two years to complete and did it in 13 months," he said.

Grundy's goal was to bring racing in northern Arizona into the 21st century by replacing antiquated Prescott Downs. "Prescott was a wonderful old place, the operative word being 'old,' " Grundy said. "The old track was dilapidated and thoroughly outdated. In order to compete, we needed a new facility and we believe this gives Arizona a year-round circuit between us and Turf Paradise. Now we will be getting the top trainers from Turf Paradise, top jockeys and the top horses. We couldn't really say that before."

Prescott racetrack existed for nearly 90 years. The half-mile oval was not really viewed by horsemen as part of an Arizona racing circuit with Turf Paradise in Phoenix, about an hour and a half south. "We needed a mile track, more stables, a more modern facility," Grundy said. The new facility, which is three stories, cost $23 million.

While there was considerable euphoria for the opening Memorial Day weekend, there also was panic.

"There was no way we were ready for what we faced opening day," Grundy said. "This place is built for the modern times, meaning you don't expect huge on track crowds anymore with the advent of all the off track simulcasting outlets. This place was built to accommodate about 2,500 people. We couldn't believe the opening day crowd. Workers were still putting down cement as people were walking in." Track officials estimate that as many as 20,000 people turned up that day.

Grundy pointed out the vacant infield, something he was unable to remedy because of time constraints. "We'll take care of that after the meet's over, with a lake and landscaping."

Grundy also noted that more stall space is needed. "We've got about 1,500 stalls but we could use 300, 500 more to be sure. If we get those done we can have even more races, maybe even go to a five-day race week," Grundy said. Currently Yavapai runs nine races a day, a mixture of Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse races, and runs Saturday through Tuesday through Sept. 4.

There is cause for optimism. Grundy reported that not only are nearly all 1,000 box seats sold out for the season, but attendance is up 23 percent and handle up 13 percent from Prescott's numbers. "If I could do it over again I would have more box seating in the clubhouse. I hate having to turn people away from the seating up here just because all the tables are already sold out. We may look into expanding the clubhouse seating some in the off-season. We do have the room," he said.

"We've gone from $26 million [in handle] four years ago to $45 million." That has helped establish a purse structure of about $50,000 a day.

The track overlooks a sweeping green desert, which spreads out until it runs into a mountain range a few miles beyond the track. A 67,000 square-foot equine center, which seats about 5,000, lies next to the track, where hunter and jumping and other equine shows are held. The fair grounds area, on which the track rests, also has room for other activities. A motocross event was held last weekend.

In this day and age there's another key factor to racetrack success - where your signal goes. Yavapai's is taken at just about every major site nationwide. "We're all over the country," Grundy said. "Being a small track, trying to find your niche and your market . . . considering where we're at, our simulcasting situation makes me feel very good."

Yavapai takes races from all over the country, and it's not lost on Grundy the importance of the days Yavapai races. "There isn't much action nationally on Mondays and Tuesdays, so our signal has been well received. We're mighty happy about that."