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Day at the Track 

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

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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.”

click to enlarge The Rillito Racetrack operates for a handful of weekends early on in the spring and lays dormant for the rest of year, occupying centrally located and highly sought after land. “I wait for this time of year all year,” Jose Morales says. General Manager Mike Weiss, as a part of his long-term plan to make Rillito a world-class racetrack, is trying to begin short fall meets this year, preferably at a time when Turf Paradise, Phoenix’s horseracing track, isn’t operating so Rillito could draw an even larger crowd. - REBECCA NOBLE
  • Rebecca Noble
  • The Rillito Racetrack operates for a handful of weekends early on in the spring and lays dormant for the rest of year, occupying centrally located and highly sought after land. “I wait for this time of year all year,” Jose Morales says. General Manager Mike Weiss, as a part of his long-term plan to make Rillito a world-class racetrack, is trying to begin short fall meets this year, preferably at a time when Turf Paradise, Phoenix’s horseracing track, isn’t operating so Rillito could draw an even larger crowd.  
click to enlarge In addition to the work done through the UA’s RTIP, there are a slew of other jobs at stake if the racetrack were to close. “I would have to leave Arizona and move to another state for horseracing,” says David Reyes, a Tucsonan and Rillito Racetrack jockey of 25 years. Security guards, racetrack administrators, photographers and videographers, announcers, simulcast staff, cashiers, servers, bartenders, vendors, veterinarians, horse trainers, exercise riders, grooms - the list of people a horseracing track can employ goes on and on and they all depend on their employment at the Rillito Racetrack. - REBECCA NOBLE
  • Rebecca Noble
  • In addition to the work done through the UA’s RTIP, there are a slew of other jobs at stake if the racetrack were to close. “I would have to leave Arizona and move to another state for horseracing,” says David Reyes, a Tucsonan and Rillito Racetrack jockey of 25 years. Security guards, racetrack administrators, photographers and videographers, announcers, simulcast staff, cashiers, servers, bartenders, vendors, veterinarians, horse trainers, exercise riders, grooms - the list of people a horseracing track can employ goes on and on and they all depend on their employment at the Rillito Racetrack.  
click to enlarge “I see every part of town represented when I come here,” says Danny Martin, a local artist and teacher at Pima Community College. The Rillito Racetrack has something to offer anyone and everyone whether you’re young or old, from south or north Tucson, Republican or Democrat. The entertainment value of a professional-level sport is accessible to people from all walks of life, while youth sports tend to appeal exclusively to the kids who play it and their parents. “I wouldn’t go watch someone else’s kids play soccer over the weekend,” Neese says. - REBECCA NOBLE
  • Rebecca Noble
  • “I see every part of town represented when I come here,” says Danny Martin, a local artist and teacher at Pima Community College. The Rillito Racetrack has something to offer anyone and everyone whether you’re young or old, from south or north Tucson, Republican or Democrat. The entertainment value of a professional-level sport is accessible to people from all walks of life, while youth sports tend to appeal exclusively to the kids who play it and their parents. “I wouldn’t go watch someone else’s kids play soccer over the weekend,” Neese says.
click to enlarge Spending weekends at the Rillito Racetrack is a tradition passed down through generations in Tucson. Carlos Rivera, now in his 30s, used to peer out at the sights and sounds of the racetrack from a stroller pushed by his mother as a child. A few decades later, Rivera is still attending races, now with his daughter Aiyana clad in horseshoe-shaped glasses riding on his hip, hoisted above the railing to catch a glimpse of the competitors as they fly by. Rivera says he sees, “almost the same group of people each weekend and since his childhood.” - REBECCA NOBLE
  • Rebecca Noble
  • Spending weekends at the Rillito Racetrack is a tradition passed down through generations in Tucson. Carlos Rivera, now in his 30s, used to peer out at the sights and sounds of the racetrack from a stroller pushed by his mother as a child. A few decades later, Rivera is still attending races, now with his daughter Aiyana clad in horseshoe-shaped glasses riding on his hip, hoisted above the railing to catch a glimpse of the competitors as they fly by. Rivera says he sees, “almost the same group of people each weekend and since his childhood.”
click to enlarge Denny Schreffler, the on and off track bulger since 1968, sounds the “Call to Post” before each race. Tucson isn’t exactly teeming with attractions, but the Rillito Racetrack is certainly one of the few the Old Pueblo has to offer. “Great entertainment, great value for the dollar and beautiful location,” Larry Rayburn says. “The running and the beauty of the horses—I think it’s just fantastic.” - REBECCA NOBLE
  • Rebecca Noble
  • Denny Schreffler, the on and off track bulger since 1968, sounds the “Call to Post” before each race. Tucson isn’t exactly teeming with attractions, but the Rillito Racetrack is certainly one of the few the Old Pueblo has to offer. “Great entertainment, great value for the dollar and beautiful location,” Larry Rayburn says. “The running and the beauty of the horses—I think it’s just fantastic.”
click to enlarge The UA’s nationally recognized Race Track Industry Program enjoys a close relationship with the Rillito Racetrack, giving students the opportunity to gain real world experience in the horseracing industry and touts incredibly high job placement rates. Hillary Neese, a senior in RTIP and assistant admissions director for the racetrack, describes the management experience as, “completely invaluable.” Bridget Grobosky, a senior in the equine sciences program and program manager of RTIP said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today without working here.” Due to her work through Rillito, Grobosky received both a travel award and was named a runner up for the American Horse Publications’ Student Award. - REBECCA NOBLE
  • Rebecca Noble
  • The UA’s nationally recognized Race Track Industry Program enjoys a close relationship with the Rillito Racetrack, giving students the opportunity to gain real world experience in the horseracing industry and touts incredibly high job placement rates. Hillary Neese, a senior in RTIP and assistant admissions director for the racetrack, describes the management experience as, “completely invaluable.” Bridget Grobosky, a senior in the equine sciences program and program manager of RTIP said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today without working here.” Due to her work through Rillito, Grobosky received both a travel award and was named a runner up for the American Horse Publications’ Student Award.
click to enlarge Horseracing is a family occasion here in Tucson. Canadian rancher and horse owner Kathy McNivens said the community’s support and abundant number of families at Rillito “blew me away.” Neese says Rillito is, “definitely different than a lot of racetracks - really family oriented. There are so many families just enjoying the moment, the food, the atmosphere,” and also mentioned the frequency of strollers around the track. - REBECCA NOBLE
  • Rebecca Noble
  • Horseracing is a family occasion here in Tucson. Canadian rancher and horse owner Kathy McNivens said the community’s support and abundant number of families at Rillito “blew me away.” Neese says Rillito is, “definitely different than a lot of racetracks - really family oriented. There are so many families just enjoying the moment, the food, the atmosphere,” and also mentioned the frequency of strollers around the track.

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