Day at the Track

The future of the 73-year-old Rillito Racetrack remains in question even though it attracts thousands

There is a diamond in the rough thriving in Tucson, despite what youth soccer advocates say. Between races, a dull buzz wafts from the assorted crowd of thousands sprinkled along the railing and throughout the grandstand and clubhouse—snowbirds, UA  students, families pushing strollers and chasing after excited toddlers, cowboys decked out in 10-gallon hats and matching boots and belts, horse owners, riders, enthusiasts and everyone in between.

There’s a roar of desperation and delight as a tight pack of neck-and-neck quarter horses race to storm the wire first at the 73-year-old Rillito Racetrack.

“My favorite line has always been, ‘You’ve got a 115-pound athlete steering a 1,200-pound athlete going 35 mph.’ There is beauty and there is pageantry in that. It’s a show. To me, we’re putting on a show every single day,” says Mike Weiss, the Rillito Racetrack general manager.

This is the birthplace of quarter horse racing, the chute system, the photo finish and the track where 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s Bob Baffert studied through the UA’s Race Track Industry Program and won his first race as a racehorse trainer.

The track has been in jeopardy since 2005 when youth soccer groups first set their sights on the Rillito Park property. Ted Schmidt, president of the Pima County Junior Soccer League and board member of the Tucson Soccer Academy, argues that the park is the only parcel of county land in Tucson large enough to house 17 soccer fields in one place (the minimum field count required to be eligible to host regional and national tournaments), leaving the long-term future of the racetrack uncertain.

Rillito Racetrack is pushing Pima County for a contract renewal spanning several years to attract long-term investors for much needed improvements to the aging property and to continue as a multi-use facility with its pre-existing 11 soccer fields. Soccer advocates are insistent Tucson needs 17 soccer fields in a single-use facility, not a horse racetrack. The track’s fate will be decided by Pima County in July 2017 when the racetrack’s contract, extended from January of 2016, will expire.

Schmidt says the Rillito Racetrack is a place where Tucsonans “drink alcohol and gamble,” a venue for “a dying sport” akin to drive-in theaters, despite never having attended a race at the Rillito Racetrack. According to Weiss, the track drew more than 50,000 patrons over only 12 days of races this year, many from out of state and the country. The Rillito Racetrack was added to the National Registry of Historic Landmarks in 1986, but Schmidt says “There’s a lot of things of historical value that have been moved indoors.” Referencing the eradication of part of downtown Tucson’s Barrio Libre in the name of urban renewal in the 1960s, Schmidt continues, “We didn’t eliminate the ability to have a downtown area because there were artifacts there.”

Could Tucson’s lack of historic preservation repeat itself with the Rillito Racetrack? Weiss says the fate of the track continues to rest with those who visit. “If we can them keep coming back,” he says, “I think you’ll really see something really special.”

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