Horse racing has been a Yavapai County tradition since the 19th century, and the Yavapai Downs at Prescott Valley's potential new owner looks to keep it that way.
Gary Miller, former president of the Arizona Horseman's Benevolent & Protective Association, agreed on Wednesday to purchase the track for $5.5 million. Although the official closing isn't expected to come until next week, Miller said that he hopes to reopen the track for racing on Memorial Day Weekend.
The track has been closed since May 2011, the same year it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
"When that place closed, a lot of my clients got out of the business. They wanted to run in Arizona year-round. They wanted to be able to see their horses run," longtime trainer Bill Brashears said Thursday. Brashears, a multiple stakes winning trainer with 5,000-plus career starts and $4.2 million career earnings, was Yavapai Downs' leading trainer in 2003, '04 and '10, and was the leading trainer in the last two years at the old Prescott Downs.
"Myself, it cost me three of my better clients that just totally got out of the business when (Yavapai Downs) went. A lot of it has to do with the economy in general, but at the same time that was just like a dagger in the heart when that place went down."
Prescott historian Danny Freeman once noted that horse racing was a major part of 4th of July celebrations in Prescott as far back as 1866. At first, races were held in Forbing Park, about three miles northwest of Prescott. Starting in 1913, they moved to the Yavapai County Fairgrounds, just west of Miller Valley Road, before finally heading east to the Prescott Valley site in 2001.
The first pari-mutuel betting on horse races in Prescott was in 1939, according to Freeman.
The dirt racetrack, adjacent to the horse racing facility, first opened for racing in 2004 but went dark when Yavapai Downs shuttered. The Raceway typically ran at least three classes of cars every Saturday night, with mini-sprints, modified stock cars, dwarf cars and mini-stocks at the top of the list. The entry-level class cars barreled down a 1/3-mile, oval-shaped track of mined clay mixed with organics in front of a very loyal local following of fans.
The track's racing season ran from May through October.
With closing on the sale of Yavapai Downs still not official, the future of the Raceway is also up in the air for now.
"Haven't looked at it yet. Most of the focus I've had has been on the due diligence of taking care of the (horse racing facility's) roof and looking at the electric, heat, utilities and kitchen. So I really haven't focused on either the Coors center or the (Raceway) track," Miller said Friday afternoon during a phone interview from New York City. "But I am committed to take a look at both of them and discuss with the different people that have asked me about it, and I just asked them to put it on hold until at least the 15th of February before we can sit down and talk.
"I do have an intent to sit down and see what's going on. If it makes sense we're gonna do it, and if it doesn't make sense we'll figure out how to fix it or not do it. My intent is to take a good look at it."
Brashears, meanwhile, is confident for better days ahead with the horse track under Miller's stewardship. He suggested on Thursday, as he had back when the Downs moved to Prescott Valley a dozen years ago, that a shuttle running patrons to and from Prescott a couple times a day could be a big boost to the track's on-site attendance. He noted that the old Prescott Downs used to run a bus for patrons to and from Phoenix every weekend.
At any rate, Brashears is gearing up for a potential opening weekend over Memorial Day, as Miller has targeted.
"Oh I'm coming back for sure," Brashears said. "It's an hour and five minutes from my house in the north side of Phoenix, and it's awful nice to be home during the summertime.
"It's yet to be seen what the purses will be like up there. I'm hoping they're at least equal (to Turf Paradise in Phoenix). But either way, there's a lot to be said for being home."