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12/11/2012 8:33:00 AM
Checking his bet
Prospective new owner faces daunting task at Yavapai Downs
Gary Miller, the winning bidder on the Yavapai Downs racetrack in Prescott Valley, looks from the third floor of the grandstands at all the weeds covering the racetrack oval.
Photo courtesy Les Stukenberg
Gary Miller, the winning bidder on the Yavapai Downs racetrack in Prescott Valley, looks from the third floor of the grandstands at all the weeds covering the racetrack oval.
Photo courtesy Les Stukenberg
Miller inspects the grandstands building near the betting windows Monday as part of his due diligence to decide whether to close on the track deal.
Photo courtesy Les Stukenberg
Miller inspects the grandstands building near the betting windows Monday as part of his due diligence to decide whether to close on the track deal.
Photo courtesy Les Stukenberg
Miller seeks more Yavapai Downs racing days
Prospective Yavapai Downs racetrack owner Gary Miller plans to ask the Arizona Racing Commission Wednesday for an increase in race days over previous years.

The commission also has asked Miller to talk about his plans for the horse track.

Miller said he will ask the commission for more than 60 days of live racing and 60 days of dark racing (off-track betting) each year. The track previously was running annual live racing days that numbered in the low 50s and dark racing days in the mid-40s, Miller said.

He hopes to file a formal racing license application in early January.

He wants to make a final decision about whether to close on his $5.5 million offer by Jan. 15, leaving a few weeks to draw up closing papers and sign them by Jan. 30.

There is a chance the track could open for its traditional Memorial Day Weekend, Miller said.

He's even "optimistic" about the chance - "If my due diligence is positive in several main areas I need."

The Prescott Valley track never opened for the 2011 summer racing season on Memorial Day Weekend, and it's been closed ever since. Its former owner, the Yavapai County Farm & Agriculture Association, filed for bankruptcy in July 2011.

The track was built in 2001 for $22 million, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Rural Development still held about $14.7 million in loans on it when the owners filed for bankruptcy.

The Downs employed about 300 people each summer alongside hundreds of trainers, jockeys and assistants.

Joanna Dodder Nellans
Special to the Tribune

The first thing you notice when you drive up to the shuttered Yavapai Downs horse racetrack facilities is the overabundance of weeds.

There was so much of it that Gary Miller, the high bidder on the bankrupt racetrack, had to hire people to cut the weeds back just so he could get into the stall area and buildings.

The entrance to the neighboring Prescott Valley Raceway car racetrack is completely blocked by 5-foot-tall weeds, too. The large metal raceway sign over the entrance is bent in half.

Driving up to the huge 11-year-old grandstand building, an observant eye will notice the flashing is peeling off the top of the roofline.

Large weeds dominate parts of the racetrack oval itself. The floors of the outdoor grandstands seating area are covered in bird droppings.

Nature tried to take over the inside of the 93,328-square-foot grandstands, too. It just might have succeeded if it had more time.

Cats and coyotes gained entry through the dryer vents and another small hole in a room behind the male jockeys' dressing room, where hair still lines the edges.

Before maintenance expert Don Bailey and his crew started cleaning up a few weeks ago, the floors of some rooms were covered with hundreds of coyote, cat and bird droppings, Bailey said. Bird feathers leftover from cat dinners were also a common find.

"The conference room was disgusting," Miller said. "The kitchen was disgusting."

They even found two kittens with their dead mother near the Thanksgiving holiday. Bailey said one of the maintenance workers took the kittens home and was able to save one.

The distinct smell of the sewer permeates the entire building, even if you're standing on the roof. It comes from a lack of bathroom water use.

One might think Miller would be unhappy about the condition of the building, but he says he's not. He's just glad it's not worse.

"Over two years, things tended to deteriorate," Miller said.

Still, he had just one goal in mind after he first toured the place following his winning bankruptcy court bid.

"The first thing I wanted to do was clean the place up," Miller said. "It was 15 minutes until puke in here."

Now he's bringing in a series of electrical, mechanical, plumbing, roofing, fire suppression, pest control and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) experts to figure out what might be broken and how much it will cost to fix it.

"In each room, you make a list," Miller said. And blue tape on the walls mark spots that need more than just paint.

Water spots are noticeable on the floor, ceiling tiles and exposed ceiling insulation in several rooms.

Some of the water spots likely came from leaky water heaters on the floors above, but Miller is clearly concerned that the roof is leaking, too. Major repairs to the huge roof could cost a couple million dollars.

"That should have been a 20- to 25-year roof," Miller said. "I'm disappointed to find out ... that I have to spend so much time to determine its condition."

Part of the roofline slants toward rain drainage holes, but part of it doesn't. It's covered with pebbles to hold down the roofing materials underneath.

Bailey has spent more time than he'd like just trying to figure out what keys work where. His master key doesn't always open doors. One room literally has hundreds of keys marked with various tags, including a perplexing "Mrs. Perkins' little room," Bailey said.

"Don has been absolutely spectacular in helping me getting things going," said Miller, who also is president of the Arizona Horseman's Benevolent & Protective Association.

Miller has hired the track's last finance director, Rene Wood, to help sort through boxes. One room is packed with 14 long tables that each have eight office boxes on top that are filled with papers.

"Do I need a non-exempt tax return from 2001 and 2002?" Miller asked himself out loud as he pulled out a random piece of paper and read it. The answer clearly was no.

This was the room where former Yavapai personnel previously found more than $69,000 worth of cash and old uncashed checks, after Sharon Fischer left the finance director job in April 2011. The bankruptcy trustee is suing Fischer, former general manager Gary Spiker and the track's former board of directors for alleged breach of fiduciary duty and negligence,

Later this week, Miller plans to inspect the barns, horse stalls and the county government's neighboring events center that he has an option to lease in exchange for hosting the county fair, as previous owners did.

In the meantime, Miller has hired the track's former racing manager Randy Fozzard and government relations consultant Bas Aja to help him get moving on regulatory issues.

"You know how many people tell me I'm nuts and can't make money here?" Miller said.

His reply: "I'm gonna make it."

Related Stories:
• Yavapai Downs racetrack sale won't be official until next week
• Miller files Yavapai Downs racing permit application
• Court accepts horseman's bid for Yavapai Downs
• Racetrack sale hearing is Oct. 30
• Possible $5.5M Downs deal; track could be open by Memorial Day

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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, December 13, 2012
Article comment by: Brenda Pendergast

FINALLY!!!!!! - Justice is the one thing you should always find!!!

Good to have Randy Fozzard back - he will get the place up and running in no time!!!

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