By Joanna Dodder Nellans

With horses once again galloping around the oval track in the northeast PV grasslands, the century-old tradition of horse racing has returned to the Prescott area after a nine-year hiatus.

Arizona Downs opened its doors on Memorial Day Weekend, with horse racing continuing there through Labor Day Weekend. If you’re looking for something unusual to do this summer, you might not realize that a trip to the track offers something for all ages. Special events and promotions are planned every weekend.

“We’re trying to appeal to different groups of fans,” Arizona Downs General Manager Ann McGovern related. Families can enjoy meeting the horses up close on the large paddock before each race, then cheering them on from the grandstands. More serious bettors seeking a quiet space to calculate their wagers can take a break in the comfortable off-track betting (OTB) room on the first floor, a feature unavailable in the past. If you’re more focused on the atmosphere, you can just hang out at the expansive third-floor bar or enjoy a meal in the third-floor restaurant overlooking the track. Reserved seating is available online for the restaurant as well as outdoor box seats.

“The best part is going out in the paddock and seeing the horses close up,” McGovern said.

During breaks in the racing action, some people even enjoy using their binoculars to scout for pronghorn herds grazing in the distance.

J&J Equine Enterprises bought the track out of bankruptcy court last year for $3.22 million. The owners have performed millions of dollars worth of renovations before opening day and it shows. The upgrades include fresh new paint inside and out, new carpet, new tiles, a new roof, and even replacement of some of the walls on the 90,000-square-foot clubhouse/grandstands.

If you’re wondering how to wager or read the racing forms that list statistics for each horse, the full-time handicapper in the OTB room can help. Arizona Downs also will offer periodic seminars.

Perhaps no one is happier to see the racetrack resurrected than the Arizona horsemen who were forced to travel out-of-state for summer meets after Yavapai Downs went bankrupt. They race winters at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. The only other Arizona track is Tucson’s Rillito Park with just 12 live winter race dates.

“The horsemen are very excited about this, and happy to race summers in Arizona,” said Leroy Gessmann, executive director of the Arizona Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association that represents 1,500 racehorse owners, breeders and trainers.

The track originally opened as Yavapai Downs in 2001 to replace the shorter track at Prescott Downs that had been operating since 1959. Local racing originally began at Prescott’s Forbing Park way back in 1913.