This featured appeared in The Connection Magazine’s September/October 2004 issue.
They’re Off And Running At Yavapai Downs…
By Ed Odeven
The picturesque backdrop of Mingus Mountain encompasses the horizon. You’re looking out into the distance, staring at what appears to be a painting from the Old West. But in reality, you’re looking at Yavapai Downs in Prescott Valley.
It’s mid-afternoon on a recent summer day, and the sounds of horses clip-clopping to and fro’ on the dirt track is heard as race warm-ups take place. Retirees mingle and discuss the weather or stare at their racing programs and offer some assessments of the upcoming race. Fathers point to the scoreboard and ask their sons which horse is their favorite, a way of checking to see if they learned how to read the numbers during their last visit to the track. Mothers hand their daughters icy, cold lemonades and remind them to pay attention, that the race will be over in just a couple of minutes.
But first, the nine jockeys aboard their equines slowly begin their final trot to the starting gate. Another race on this carefree afternoon is about to commence.
As many as 12 horses will race in each of today’s nine races. It’s a weekday, which means there are nine races, while on weekends eight races are held – which means there are at least 144 dozen theories regarding which horses will win, place, show, or simply fail to generate any interest.
Everyone, of course, thinks they’ve got a “system” to pick the winners. But, they can’t all be right, can they? Maybe today, but not tomorrow. Or is it the other way around?
This much is certain: People remember the winners – the top horses, jockeys and trainers during the course of a season, and thereafter. Or as Yavapai Downs general manager Jim Grundy says, “A lot of your more experienced bettors will bet on the more experienced trainers and jockeys. They are very aware of who are the top jockeys and top trainers. It does influence their decision on which horse they bet on.” (A brief primer entitled “Learning To Play The Races” is available for free at Yavapai Downs, published by the Daily Racing Form. Just ask for a copy. Included inside are brief explanations of how to read a racing program, the scoreboard, understanding the odds, etc.)
As the discussion of wagering continued, Grundy was asked, in terms of money, to describe a typical day of betting at Yavapai Downs.
The racetrack’s general manager responded by saying, “We average, between in-state and out-of-state combined, about a half a million dollars a day in wagering, between our on-track and off-track (sites).”
Grundy said that “typically 80 percentage of your wagering is from off-track, and 20 percent is on-track.”
At Yavapai Downs, customers can bet on simulcast races from the following places: Philadelphia Park Racetrack (home track of Smarty Jones), Delaware Park Racetrack, Calder Race Course (owned by Churchill Downs), River Downs, Prairie Meadows, Great Lakes Downs and The Mountain River Race Track & Gaming Resort.
In addition, there are some 50 OTB sites around the state, from Ahwatukee to Yuma, from Bisbee to Wickenburg. Wagering starts at $2. Appetites for winning are much bigger.
But there is a lot more to horse racing than just the aspect of wagering. Yavapai Downs racetrack announcer Greg “Boomer” Wry, who has held this job for 20-plus years at many tracks around the country, said part of the appeal for him and this track’s fans is “the excitement of racing here.”
Keeping the fans glued to their seats, Wry said, are top-notch jockeys like Steve Gomez. “He’s a perennial leader at Turf Paradise that comes up here,” the announcer added. “Wilson Dieguez, Miguel Hernandez, Lorenzo Lopez all are top riders that come up here from Turf Paradise.”
Like Gomez, Dieguez, Hernandez and Lopez, racing aficionados from around the state, as well as the horses, spend many summer days in Prescott Valley, a welcome change of scenery from Turf Paradise, the Phoenician track that’s home to racing from late September to May. The reason? Why, it’s cooler, of course – even five degrees is a big deal in July.
And what type of horses race at Yavapai Downs in the summer?
“Obviously, we have some lower-level claimers here, but we have some pretty nice horses here, too,” Wry said. Wry was asked about his assessment of the reputation of the track, one of the nation’s newer ones. After all, he travels the nation while working at several tracks each year.
“I think the track has a good reputation,” Wry stated, “in that it serves a purpose, which it was put here for. It’s a summer-race place to be up in cooler weather. It doesn’t make sense to try to run in Phoenix, because you couldn’t run in Phoenix in the summer.
“It’s cooler up here. It’s nice. It’s a laid-back area. It’s doing what it was put here to do.”
Opened in 2001, Yavapai Downs, with barn accommodations for 1,500 horses, is still a relatively brand new racetrack – when one thinks about all the nation’s tracks that have been around for decades.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not a spirited rivalry that has developed between the riders here.
Again, numbers tell the story.
According to jockey Anna Barrio, one of the regulars at Yavapai Downs, usually two dozen jockeys compete here during the summer months.
“They have 12-horse gates here and usually most fields have like eight (riders),” Barrio said. “So imagine how many riders sit out each race when there’s 25 riders. It’s very competitive. It’s a pretty decent meet, so there’s plenty of (opportunities) for everybody.
“You can do alright.”
Some days, Barrio and her peers will ride in, say, four or five races. Other days, they might race just once.
“Sometimes, it gets boring,” she said, “but you get used to it up here. You come back alive when it’s time (to race). You just read the paper or something, watch TV or watch the races … or take a nap.”
Certainly, the fans aren’t taking a nap when the horses gallop down the backstretch. Quite the contrary. They are shouting and clapping, staring and swearing, hoping their favorite horse – or the one they wagered on – is the winner. Others, of course, are just getting acclimated to the nuances of the fast-paced sport.
Example: One observer heard a lady tell her friend, “What’s better: a show or a place?”
They quickly learned. All the while, enjoying the scenery, the laidback atmosphere, the small-track charm.
Yavapai Downs, which is located on Highway 89A just northeast of Prescott Valley, has horse racing every Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday from June through September 7.
Yavapai Downs also hosts the county fair the first week of September, and also holds numerous events for community, educational and non-profit organizations. The facility also attracts entertainment, such as the Fourth of July concert performance by Little Texas, a popular country music group. The racetrack’s Web site states, “Net proceeds from events are utilized to support the new 200-acre facility and the community.”
A seven-furlong turf course is also planned for the future on the property.
Note: The racing facility in Prescott Valley changed its name to Arizona Downs in 2019.