In 1954 Phoenix businessman Walter Cluer purchased 1,400 acres of barren desert at what is now Bell Road and 19th Avenue. Cluer, a successful millwork founder and manufacturer, was also a horse owner. Although Cluer’s education consisted only of an eighth grade diploma, he had a passion to make a personal dream a reality: Building a first-class race track in Phoenix.
There were more than a few locals who thought Cluer’s ambitious pronouncement was illtimed and doomed to failure. After all, the property was 25 miles from the hustle and bustle of the burgeoning metropolis of downtown Phoenix and the only way to get there was via a few badly maintained dirt roads. But like any man on a mission, Cluer was not to be dissuaded by the naysayers.
On January 7, 1956, Turf Paradise opened its doors and Phoenicians responded by filling every seat and standing shoulder-to-shoulder to welcome pari-mutuel racing to Arizona and the Valley’s first sports franchise.
Cluer remained as head of the track for nearly 25 years. Then in 1980, Herb Owens took over and Turf Paradise entered into its renovation phase. The Clubhouse was enlarged and an elegant Turf Club with a penthouse-style Directors’ Suite and outdoor patio were added. Racing wise, the track constructed a seven-furlong infield turf course with a one mile and one-eighth chute.
In 1989, Turf Paradise’s third owner, Robert Walker, purchased and guided the track into yet another new territory: Off-Track Betting. Walker, of Scottsdale had made his fortune with an aerospace company he had founded and sold. Walker’s formula was the right approach at the right time as he retirer the track’s outstanding debt and declared the first-ever dividend for Turf Paradise stockholders. In addition, Walker and a consortium of horse racing interests, successfully lobbied the Arizona Legislature to legalize off-track betting. The instate OTB network is perhaps Walker’s greatest contribution to the track and Arizona’s racing industry. What started out as a single OTB site in little Cave Creek (pop. 4,000) in 1991, has now blossomed into over 45 in-state OTB’s and over 900 out-of-state locales, located in six different countries.
Turf Paradise took on a corporate face when in 1994 the track was purchased in a stock acquisition by California based Hollywood Park, under the chairmanship of R.D. Hubbard. Despite intense competition from multiple Native American in-state casino gaming interests, Turf Paradise continued to flourish and achieve record mutuel handle numbers.
The new millennium provided Turf Paradise with a new owner in Jerry Simms. The self-made multi-millionaire purchased Turf Paradise in June of 2000 for $53 million. Mixing business acumen and savvy entrepreneurship, Simms Midas-touched modest investments in automobile dealerships, residential and commercial real estate ventures and banking in southern California, into a fortune. He immediately set out a $5 million renovation plan designed to enhance the racing experience with a quality dining and entertainment ambience. Both the Clubhouse and Turf Club were completely renovated and race book-style betting carrels were added to complement the traditional day at the races.