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Newly opened Arizona Downs worth the drive from Las Vegas

Updated May 30, 2019 - 6:28 pm

What kind of fool drives eight hours in a day to see horses run in circles? You are now reading the words of such a man.

I couldn’t attend opening day on Friday at Arizona Downs, but I sure wasn’t going to miss Day 2. I hit the road early Saturday and shot down U.S. 93, east on Interstate 40, then south on Arizona state Route 89 to arrive at the Prescott Valley track shortly before noon.

There’s a great story behind the resurrection of the former Yavapai Downs, which closed in 2010. The Auther brothers — Tom, Dave and Mike, veteran Arizona real estate guys — and partner Joe Jackson picked up the property out of bankruptcy for $3.2 million in January 2018. Even though they knew next to nothing about horse racing, they decided to revive it as a racing facility. Since then they have poured $7 million into the track to get it into top shape for the grand opening.

The smartest thing they did, Tom Auther says, was consult with racetrack executive Corey Johnson, an Arizona State alum and then-president and part-owner of Kentucky Downs. He, in turn, recommended bringing in veteran track manager Ann McGovern to run the show.

That has paid dividends, as McGovern used her connections to recruit Dennis Moore, then on hiatus as Santa Anita racetrack superintendent, to redo the racing surface, and land highly regarded former Santa Anita announcer Michael Wrona.

The track will offer thoroughbred and quarter horse racing through Labor Day, running only on weekends except around holidays. If you decide to invest a couple tanks of gas in the excursion you’ll be rewarded with some highly affordable entertainment: General admission is just $2 and concession prices were also quite reasonable.

None of the approximately 800 horses on the grounds will make you forget Secretariat, but the track will fill an important gap for Arizona horsemen, who for years have had no option but to ship out of state once Turf Paradise in Phoenix concluded live racing in early May.

Trainer Ed Kereluk, 60, who has raced either in Northern California or New Mexico in recent summers, cut costs significantly by shipping 18 horses just 88 miles up the road.

“There’s a lot of people who couldn’t go out of state and this is their livelihood,” he said. “The track opening here means a lot to a lot of people, and everyone in town seems really happy the horses are back.”

That was reflected in the opening weekend crowds, which ranged from 2,500 on Friday and Sunday to 2,800 on Saturday, according to management. Handle topped $200,000 on Sunday, with more than $50,000 of that wagered on track.

Belmont Stakes update

The field for the 151st Belmont Stakes on June 8 won’t be finalized until Tuesday, but as of now we’re looking at a nine-horse field. The horses (and their trainers) listed as probable as of Thursday:

Everfast (Dale Romans), Intrepid Heart (Todd Pletcher), Joevia (Greg Sacco), Master Fencer (Koichi Tsunoda), Sir Winston (Mark Casse), Spinoff (Todd Pletcher), Tacitus (Bill Mott), Tax (Danny Gargan), War of Will (Mark Casse).

#RJhorseracing featured races

The #RJhorseracing handicappers are tackling Saturday’s $200,000 Penn Oaks, a mile turf test for 3-year-old fillies, and the $500,000 Penn Mile, a Grade 2 for 3-year-old males on the lawn, both run at Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course.

In the former, the crew is solidly behind 6-5 morning line favorite Regal Glory, figuring the Chad Brown trainee can resume her winning ways on the class drop. They have Alasaayil (7-2) and Ionic (3-1) in the minor placings.

Betting against Brown on the green is generally a recipe for ruin, but I think Ionic can get the jump on the favorite and hold her off late. I’ll use local hope Ujjayi (6-1), who adds blinkers, in third.

In the Penn Mile, the crowd ’cappers are again chalky on top, backing 5-2 favorite A Thread of Blue. But they have some value plays underneath in Real News (5-1) and Moon Colony (12-1).

“A Thread of Blue is fast, but doesn’t need the lead. (Jockey Luis) Saez and this runner click together,” wrote Michael Kaczer of the group’s choice.

I respect my handicapping peeps, but will take a shot with Real News, who looks to have plenty of upside in just his second turf route. I’ve got A Thread of Blue in second and Forty Under (7-2) in third.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Friday. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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