Home World Horse Racing News Arizona commissioner exits meeting to block Turf Paradise licensing vote

Arizona commissioner exits meeting to block Turf Paradise licensing vote



The vice chairman of Arizona’s Racing Commission walked out on a meeting Thursday to block renewal of a license for the state’s largest horse track, saying he is upset about safety issues. 

Commissioner Rory Goree said he toured the Turf Paradise grounds in Phoenix last week, after a fire burned through two tack rooms, and found glaring safety problems.

Goree said some fire extinguishers were missing or outdated and smoke detectors were not functional. He said Turf Paradise has a history of safety issues, and there’s a lack of accountability in resolving them.

“If we’re not as a collective group giving a s–t about security,” Goree asked, “how are we giving a s–t about racing? …We have people’s lives — and horses’ lives — at risk.”

Later in the meeting, Racing Division Director Rudy Casillas urged commissioners to grant a three-year license renewal for the track.

Commissioner Tom Lawless moved for approval.

Goree then stunned his colleagues by standing to announce, “At this time, I am leaving, and there will be no quorum.” He then marched out of the room.

By statute, the Racing Commission is supposed to have five members.

However, two seats are vacant because David Heiple resigned in December and William Feldmeier quit more than a year ago.

Thus, when Goree exited, Lawless and Chairman Jay McClintock were unable to take any action.

After scooting outside, Goree reiterated his safety concerns, adding, “I just couldn’t let a vote go forward without assurances.”

He did not indicate how those assurances might be made.

Jerry Simms, majority owner of Turf Paradise, denied that the facility has chronic problems with safety. He said issues are addressed when identified. He added that barns are made of concrete, with steel roofs, and horsemen are happy with track maintenance.

“Safety is the most important thing to us,” Simms said.

In 2008, then-Racing Department Director Geoffrey Gonsher recommended that Turf Paradise lose its license based on a number of findings, including an assertion that unsafe operations placed horses, jockeys and others at risk. The recommendation was not heeded.

The Racing Division produced an “investigative report” for Thursday’s licensing decision. The four-page document does not address safety issues for horses, jockeys or Turf Paradise facilities. The agency does not maintain records on injuries to jockeys, trainers and others.


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Turf Paradise has an estimated $91 million annual impact on Arizona’s economy. Live races run from October into May, drawing more than 200,000 gamblers and spectators each season. 

The track at 1501 W. Bell Road was built more than 60 years ago and purchased by Jerry Simms, his brother, Ron, and others in 2000. 

In 2010, the Simms brothers sued one another — each accusing the other of criminal conduct, in a case that remains unresolved.

Amid that turmoil, the Racing Commission voted to strip Ron Simms of his license (the decision was overturned in court), and an administrate judge found that Jerry Simms’ representatives secretly collaborated with a Racing Department director. 

Critics contend Jerry Simms has undue influence with the Racing Commission through personal friendships with Lawless and McClintock, who regularly socialize with the Turf Paradise boss.

Goree said Thursday he’s considered leaving the commission because he is uncomfortable with overall operations.

“There have been times I’ve been ready to quit,” he said. “I just feel there are things going on behind the scenes — directions coming from somewhere.”

He declined to elaborate on that comment.


Two brothers who dominate Phoenix horse racing are locked in a struggle for control of the Turf Paradise track. Mark Henle/azcentral.com

The commission regulates horse racing at tracks in Phoenix, Prescott and Tucson, plus offtrack wagering at parlors across the state.

It is unclear why Feldmeier’s slot has remained vacant for more than a year.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey, said via email that applications are under review. He did not provide a date when appointments are expected.

Ptak also wrote, “While we do not have a proposal to eliminate the Racing Commission, we’re always looking for ways to make government more accountable and efficient.” 



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