03/14/2014 1:00PM

Rillito Park: Successful season could be track's last

Jim Dunleavy
Rillito Park’s 88 acres are owned by Pima County, which wants to build a soccer facility where the stable area now stands.

For years, Rillito Park, in Tucson, Ariz., has been doing as poet Dylan Thomas advised – to not go gentle into that good night.

But go it might.

After years of battling with the county, after delays and reprieves, the 71-year-old track’s closure looms after the current meet ends on March 30. Pima County, which owns the 88-acre property, says it wants to build a soccer complex adjacent to the track. To do that, it intends to demolish the current barns, located on the west side of the track, and rebuild three of them on the east side, according to a memo from the office of County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. The memo states that the county will not demolish the grandstand unless voters approve a funding allocation for that purpose, and that even if that happens, the track would remain open for three or four more years.

Pat White, general manager of the track since 1987, says she believes the county intends to demolish the grandstand and close the track. And, besides, she said, the loss of parking space to the soccer complex and loss of stall space while the barns are being relocated would essentially spell the immediate death knell for Rillito Park, a five-eighth-mile track located in an area known for its Southwestern culture – and thus horse culture.

Despite several attempts to close it over the years, Rillito Park continues to flourish. A “slow” day, according to White, is a crowd of 3,000. Just this past Sunday over 6,000 people crammed into the facility. The track lures an eclectic mix of fans – from horse industry people and cowboys, to families, to the diehard player, to college kids from the local University of Arizona looking for something new.

This has White hopeful that a compromise can be worked out that would save Rillito Park once again. She thinks the site could be reparceled in such a way that the soccer complex and racetrack could operate side by side.

“We’re not giving up just yet,” White said. “There were meetings this week between us and the county to try to come to some sort of agreement that works for both sides.”

Pima County first tried to close the track in 1984, but voters approved an initiative that allowed the track to operate for 25 more years. When that period ended, in 2009, the county was not prepared financially to move forward with redevelopment plans, so it gave the track a five-year reprieve. But those five years are up and the county is ready to move.

Earlier, the county proposed to move Rillito Park to the Pima County Fairgrounds, but the $6 million earmarked for that would have fallen far short of the cost to set up a new grandstand, racing surface, and stable area in a new spot, track officials said.

Although Rillito Park is listed as an historic district in the National Register, that does not preclude Pima County from rebuilding on the site.

Rillito Park is home to no small amount of history. Quarter Horse racing was first conducted here in 1943, long before it blossomed at spots like Los Alamitos in Southern California and Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico. In 1953, the oval track was installed for Thoroughbred racing. Rillito Park helped pioneer the use of the photo-finish camera.

White said she hopes Rillito Park and the county can find a solution that will allow the oft-embattled track to continue to make history well into the future.

“We’re hoping we can stop the bulldozers again,” she said.