When most Thoroughbred fans contemplate racing in our great western states the only tracks that come readily to mind are those palatial California establishments, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. Very little is known—outside the western states—of a whole new wonderful world of racing which accentuates fun and minor opportunity for the average horseman instead of wealth and publicity for the big-name stable owner.
There is in the West today a highly profitable secondary racing circuit encompassing hundreds of thousands of square miles and ranging all the way from Caliente in Old Mexico, eastward through New Mexico to Denver and Omaha, and north to Tucson, Seattle, Spokane, Great Falls, Mont. and Vancouver. The names of the tracks in this minor league—like Rillito Park, La Mesa Park, Ruidoso Downs, Longacres, Playfair, Centennial Park—may not ring proudly in terms of attendance, pari-mutuel handle, or the quality of horses stabled there, but nonetheless it is in just this sort of circuit that are buried the very roots of racing—roots which extend from the earliest quarter horse winner-take-all match race over a rough and often dangerous strip, to the glory of a day when the whole racing world stood to salute a team of Arizona ranchers named Rex Ellsworth and Mish Tenney when they took the great Swaps out of the West to win the Kentucky Derby.
The secondary western circuit—often called the Mountain Circuit—has a winter capital in the growing community of Phoenix, Arizona. There, in an area where the metropolitan population has grown from 262,000 to 380,000 in five years, the race course known as Turf Paradise has been setting a fast pace for the last two years.
Walter R. Cluer, the mastermind behind Turf Paradise, is both an experienced horseman and a successful Phoenix construction company executive. Cluer built his track 14 miles from downtown Phoenix, out in the desert. In 1954 he bought 1,400 acres of land at prices ranging from $250 to $1,250 an acre. Today, barely two years after Turf Paradise first opened, the land around is selling for between $2,500 and $3,000 an acre. And while already more than 210 new manufacturing concerns have started operations in Phoenix since 1951, the city is getting ready for the biggest invasion yet of electrical and precision tool manufacturers—most of them, as Cluer had long estimated, planning to move directly northwest of the city and as directly in line with the inviting gates of Turf Paradise.
The racing plant itself is ready now for its new clients. Built at a cost of $2½ million, it has 5,000 permanent seats and could handle 15,000 with little trouble. With the extra acreage which the track owns it could some day park 28,000 cars, and there's nothing but space in every direction (except up into the Squaw Peak range) for additional facilities. The barns, containing 844 stalls, are solid concrete with steel doors and are 100% fireproof. On one side of the mile track (which when dry is certainly one of the fastest in the country) is a 3,200-foot landing strip for private planes, and across from it the Turf Club is as luxurious and attractive as anything yet offered in California or Florida. In short, Turf Paradise is all that its name implies.
The racing here is conducted by two independent groups in complete harmony. One of the meetings, logically enough, is known simply as Turf Paradise. The other, a 40-day meeting now in progress under the able general managership of Jim Herbuveaux, is known as Arizona Downs at Turf Paradise.
Turf Paradise is, of course, a long way from being a threat to California as a profitable place to go winter racing. The average crowd for its four racing days each week is about 4,300, and the daily handle only around $160,000 (a record crowd of 7,100 recently showed up on a Sunday when Willie Shoemaker flew in to ride one of Ellsworth's horses, and on that day the handle was $248,576). The result is that the track can little afford extravagance in purse distribution: a $1,000 minimum on Wednesdays and weekends, and an $800 minimum on Fridays. The biggest stakes are $5,000 (there are only three of them during the whole season), but for a man dealing with horses worth up to $3,000, $5,000 in prize money can look mighty appealing.
There is a definite place in racing for tracks like Turf Paradise. They offer opportunities for the smaller owner whose stock is not good enough to get him into the big leagues but who surely belongs in horse racing just the same. At the same time many a large California stable (Rex Ellsworth and Andy Crevolin, just to name two) can split into two divisions and send one string around the Mountain Circuit. They offer a training ground for young riders, a lot of whom at Turf Paradise are just discovering that the newly installed film patrol has a keen eye. If the progressive Walter Cluer and Jim Herbuveaux can continue to boost their business by 15% each year (as they did last season), they'll not only make a small profit for the first time in 1958, but in effect will also be shouting, "Turf Paradise is in business in a big way—and for keeps."