By Danny Freeman
Prescott has always been a horse racing town; well, that is, since 1866, when the town was just two years old. By then cattlemen were here in sufficient numbers with horses to race. In those early days, races were matched-races with side-betting. That year, 1866, and for many years, horse racing was a major part of the 4th of July celebrations. For centuries horse owners and others have considered horse racing as an entertaining sport. And one way or another, interested people will find a way to gamble on sports.
At first, races were held in Forbing Park, about three miles northwest of Prescott. Since 1913, they have been held at the Yavapai County Fairgrounds, just west of Miller Valley Road. There was an attempt in 1931, to have pari-mutuel betting on races here, but the venture fell through. However, the Yavapai County Fair Association checked with the County Attorney and the State Attorney General and both agreed and advised the Fair Association that pari-mutuel betting was not gambling.
The first pari-mutuel betting on horse races in Prescott was in 1939. That year, C.W. "Doc" Pardee was arena director for the Prescott Rodeo, July 1, 2, 3 and 4. Pardee programmed 4 or 5 races each day of the rodeo. The pari-mutuel equipment was brought in from Nevada. Those races were not under state supervision.
The 1939, races were well received, especially, the Phoenix Handicap held on July 4th which carried a $200 purse presented by Barry Goldwater of Phoenix, plus one percent of the gate receipts. The race was won by Black Beauty, ridden by Ferris Price and owned by the jockey's father, Ray Price, of Phoenix. Then there were no more pari-mutuel races in Prescott until 1950.
In 1949, the state legislature passed a bill authorizing pari-mutuel betting on races so that counties could sponsor races to raise money to fund their respective county fairs. This new law also established the Arizona State Racing Commission to supervise dog and horse racing and pari-mutuel betting throughout the state.
The first races held in Prescott under state supervision were during the Yavapai County Fair on September 16 and 17, 1950. The total handle, money bet, for those two days was $3274. Today the average handle is more than $100,000 a day.
The first ten years, 1950 through 1959, of state supervised racing in Prescott, races were sponsored by the Yavapai County Sheriff's Posse under lease arrangement with the County Fair Association. Most of the men involved were members of both groups...Posse and Fair Association. The Posse was made up of energetic young men anxious to have racing in order to bring in outside money to the community. The Posse used it's take of the races for scholarships and to build the Posse House on Copper Basin Road.
The next four years, 1960-1963, a private corporation, Yavapai Turf Club, ran the races but paid rent for the use of the fairgrounds. This group was made up of local people and they named the race track "Prescott Downs". After the 1963, racing season, on November 19, 1963, the Funk Brothers of Phoenix, Arthur and Dave, bought the Turf Club and ran the races for the next 14 years, 1964-1977. Funks spent a lot of money making improvements in the grandstand and on the race track. At the end of the races in 1977, Funks turned the races back to the Fair Association.
The next five years, 1978-1982, the Fair Association ran the races but lost money. At that time, the Association made a deal with the Martori brothers, Art and Joe, to absorb the debts and receive a 5-year lease. The Martori brothers then ran the races for four years, 1983-1986. They gave the races back to the Fair Association a year early because of difficulty in obtaining affordable liability insurance.
So, once again, in 1987, the Fair Association was back in the horse racing business. This year, 1998, will make 12 years this time and will mark the 49th straight year of pari-mutuel horse racing and betting in Prescott under state supervision.
Through the years, racing has been the one activity that has kept the fairgrounds going. All improvements at the fairgrounds, except for the two old rock houses, "Doc" Pardee and Freeman buildings, and the grandstand, have been made possible because of racing. The two old rock houses and grandstand were built in the 1930's with assistance from the federal government. True, some money has come from rodeo and Smoki, but the County Fair usually costs more.
The Yavapai County Fair Association is a non-profit corporation and was not making much money from the races until off-track betting became legal. That didn't bother the Association much because the principle objective of the present board of directors, as it has been since 1866, with previous boards, is to provide entertainment that will attract people to Prescott to enjoy races, spend money and thus help the local economy.
In 1991, the state legislature passed a bill to allow "Off-track Wagering" on horse and dog racing. The next year, 1992, Yavapai County Fair Association entered into agreements to beam Prescott Downs' races to 23 outlets in the state. Today, there are over 30 of these stations. 1992, was the turning point in Prescott Downs racing. That's when the track began making lots of money. Prescott Downs, owned by the Yavapai County Fair Association, receives a percentage of the money bet at all the off-track betting stations in the state. This extra money will enable the track to move someday to a new location with more room. The track is a half-mile which is too small--it should be five-eighths.
Prescott Downs has an agreement with Turf Paradise track in Phoenix to beam their races to Prescott in the winter and Prescott Downs beams its races to Phoenix in the summer, and to other outlets in the state.
The added income the past few years has enabled the Fair Association to make needed improvements of the fairgrounds and the racetrack. In addition, it has been able to plow back some money into the community in scholarships and for other worthy causes.
This year's racing season, 1998, begins Friday, May 22nd, and then there will be racing every weekend during the summer except for one week in July for the annual Prescott Frontier Days Rodeo at the fairgrounds. Racing will end this year on Labor Day, September 7th, 1998.
Danny Freeman is the author of "The World's Oldest Rodeo".
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (pb022f99i1). Reuse only by permission.
This 1951 Matt Culley photograph shows a very close race at Prescott Downs. Horse racing has been a part of Prescott's History since 1866.