The inaugural summer season for Arizona Downs will be a reminder of the rich history of horse racing in our state, especially for Jim and Flo Herbuveaux, whose family originally owned Arizona Downs, and ran successful horse racing meets from the 1950s to mid 1980s.
In those days, Arizona Downs’ racing season took place in the heart of Phoenix, at Ingleside Turf Club (near 60th Street and Thomas) and attracted enormous crowds. By the late 1950s, Arizona Downs was struggling to accommodate the number of patrons coming out to watch the races. The Arizona Racing Commission recommended that Arizona Downs move its meets to the newly developed Turf Paradise, which was at risk of shutting down despite drawing large crowds during its inaugural racing season.
Arizona Downs’ relocation to northwest Phoenix was the injection that Turf Paradise needed and a boon for Arizona’s horse industry. Horse racing thrived for the next three decades, running meets throughout the year that took place not only in Phoenix but in downtown Prescott, Flagstaff and at county fairs throughout the state.
Arizona Downs racing seasons alternated between spring and fall in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and attracted huge crowds that packed the stands. Fans enjoyed the best in Thoroughbred racing, including performances by the young and upcoming Don Pierce, a Hall of Fame jockey who went on to ride more than 3,500 winners in his 30-year career. Arizona Downs’ meets were filled with pageantry and prestige, and drew celebrities like Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason, Liberace, Sammy Davis Jr., Hank Aaron, Eva Gabor, and Peggy Lee, among many others.
In the early 1960s, Arizona Downs also gained national attention when the racetrack introduced Mary Ash, an ASU music student who became the world’s first female racetrack bugler. Ash was an instant celebrity and made guest appearances on What’s My Line and To Tell the Truth, where she stumped the Hollywood panelists. She also performed at racetracks across the country, making a whopping $15 for each appearance.
In 1983, Arizona Downs reached another major milestone, when wagering at the racetrack hit the $1 million-dollar mark – a first in the state. Unfortunately, the era of Arizona Downs ended in 1985 after tensions developed with the management of Turf Paradise, who later acquired Arizona Downs’ racing dates.
But that’s not the end of the story.
In 2018, Jim and Flo got a call from Kentucky Downs’ owner Corey Johnsen. Johnsen had worked for them at Arizona Downs in the 1970s fresh out of college and kept in touch with them through the years. “A group of local developers had purchased the site of the former Yavapai Downs and wanted to bring the name Arizona Downs back to the state’s racing circuit,” said Jim Herbuveaux.
When Jim and Flo learned a little more about the developers, they were convinced that these were the guys who could help rejuvenate the racing circuit statewide, including county fairs.
“We were delighted when we learned that the developers were the Auther brothers and Joe Jackson,” said Flo Herbuveaux. “Our nieces and nephews attended the same schools. We knew they were smart, trustworthy and have always had a great reputation.”
Jim and Flo Herbuveaux will reunite with former racetrack bugler Mary Ash-Duell, when all three take the stage with the new owners of Arizona Downs on Memorial Day weekend to celebrate the inaugural summer meet, and Arizona’s return to year-round horse racing. “It’s great to know that our namesake, and the rich history it represents, is in such good hands,” said Jim.