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Horsemen Feel Racing Still Has A Home In 60-Year-Old Phoenix Turf Paradise

Published: Thursday, October 15, 2015 - 4:55pm
Updated: Thursday, October 15, 2015 - 9:14pm
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(Photo by Phil Latzman - KJZZ)
Turf Paradise in north Phoenix celebrates its 60th year.

Turf Paradise opens the gates this weekend on its 60th anniversary season.

Horsemen and track operators feel the sport of kings still has a castle in Phoenix. The facade of the track’s grandstand still looks much like it did when Turf Paradise first opened in 1956, but track general manager Vincent Francia said that’s about the only thing that looks familiar.

“Everything around Turf Paradise was desert. What we now know as a very busy thoroughfare in Phoenix, Bell Road, back then was a dirt road, and there wasn’t anything on it.”

Francia said even before the track opened six decades ago, the state had a special connection to the equine world.

“What keeps the sport going and what keeps us healthy is its affinity for humans and horses. It’s a connection that goes back in Arizona history to the time when it was a territory and even before. The state was totally dependent on the horse for its development.”

And that, he said, made Turf Paradise the logical spot to become Arizona’s first professional sports franchise. In its heyday, the track hosted tens of thousands of patrons who came to watch live horse racing. Today, not so much.

“With the off-track betting, we don’t get the crowds that we used to get, which for me as a jockey, with the crowd it brings energy. So, you know, the more people that come out, the better it is,” said Scott Stevens, a longtime Turf Paradise jockey.

Those betting also have many other options for their discretionary income, such as nearby casinos, which also siphoned business away from the track.

“They’re one of the few tracks that are still going that don’t have a casino to back them up. You know, they struggle, but it’s still a big tradition. And a lot of lives are back here, they make their living back here,” he said.

Stevens' entire family makes a living off the horse racing business. His father was a trainer and his brother, Gary, is a Hall of Fame jockey.

There is a large area adjacent to the track, home to 1900 horses and several thousand horsemen and women who inhabit Turf Paradise’s stables during the track’s 7.5 month meet. Trainer Stacy Campo is among them.

“I got horses over here. Got my sand pit. Got a setup for, I think, 10 horses here right. All the horses you see here were born in Arizona,” Campo said.

It’s “all in the family” for Campo. The 44-year-old is an Arizona native and a second-generation trainer, following in her father, John’s, footsteps. She said it hasn’t been easy staking a claim in the turf nowadays.

“Everyone was making so much money for so long and people were really getting into racing when everything went south. Some of these tracks really got hurt. If you don’t have the money, it’s hard to keep these horses going.”

But trainers, like Campo, are hoping the attention surrounding American Pharoah, the sport’s first triple crown winner in 37 years, has helped revive interest in horse racing and, by extension, this historic track. American Pharoah was trained by fellow native Bob Baffert, a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Management Program.

“He’s a great horseman. Being able to setup a program like we have here, I think there’s only two places where you can really learn much about racing. And since Arizona offers it, a lot of people are coming to Arizona to try and become the next Baffert.”

A crowd of 4,000 people came to cheer on American Pharoah remotely at Turf Paradise last June when the thoroughbred completed his triple crown run at the Belmont Stakes in New York. Scott Stevens said it’s just the kind of publicity the sport needs to stay viable with a new generation.

“I think that brings interest back. Everybody wants to see a winner. I think things like that will bring the younger crowd back. We have to bring the younger people back out here.”

Turf Paradise’s 60th season kicks off Saturday. First post time is at 12:55 p.m.

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