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.

Bailey Gallison More than 1 year ago
Thanks for the article, Rillito does not get enough attention - many people in Tucson don't even know it exists, which is surprising as it receives a great crowd every one of the few weekends it runs in the spring. There is no advertising, no marketing, no websites. The results chart takes much longer to appear on Equibase than other tracks. There is no simulcasting - they have a few tv's in clubhouse that will show outside signals from a big track, but no wagering is available, and they do not simulcast their races to other facilities. If you want to bet Rillito, you have to go to Rillito. They have a small number of self service betting machines (2 in the clubhouse, 2 in the grandstand), and often don't have the change to pay out your ticket (I've experienced this at other small tracks). But the parking lot fills up, the drinks flow, and the crowd gets 10 deep outside the walking ring. It may sound awful, but it is still my favorite event in Tucson, and a place that should be treasured and taken care of. For many of us attending the University of Arizona from around the country for the Race Track Industry Program, it is the only bit of live racing we get to experience while away from our home tracks. It's a little track in the middle of the desert that takes you back in time, to experience the humble beginnings of horse racing and understand why it is a sport that stole our hearts and made us open our wallets.
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606 More than 1 year ago
Rillito Park does not have a website, only a Facebook page. Google it.
TC Utley More than 1 year ago
Ed Moore county supervisor has been a big friend to friendly Rillito, hopefully Ed can work his magic yet again. It would be a great loss for Tucson, especially RTIP program at U of A. Why can't the kids play at the fields at the Tucson elementary schools or even the High school, maybe even in the infield of the track...
606 More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately for Rillito, Big Ed doesn't have the clout here he once did. This is all about money influencing politics. Pima County lets private, for-profit soccer clubs use the county soccer fields located in the track infield for a song. The location is a short drive for Foothills soccer moms to bring the kids so the coaches and clubs flourish. Ed Moore suggested an alternative site for a soccer complex a few years back but it was immediately rejected by the soccer people. God forbid if the Foothills folks have to drive a few miles West. In times when most tracks struggle with on-track attendance, Rillito still draws a good crowd. It makes you wonder what this track could do if they had a modern facility.
Old timer More than 1 year ago
I just looked on DRF.com and there is no link for Rillito. i guess that could be because they may not have a web site. However DRF still has a link for Pinnacle Race Course in Michigan... which no longer exists. (only been about three years now!) What is up with that?
Bob Fritz More than 1 year ago
I checked last week. Rillito has no website. The first Google page is, ironically, from the Pima County site encouraging tourists to visit Rillito.
606 More than 1 year ago
There are a lot of different players involved in this story. Face it, the influence of money in politics is everywhere in this country and Tucson and Pima County are no different. For an informative background story on Rillito Park and the county's efforts to shut it down I would suggest reading the Tucson Weekly's piece from 2010. Just Google, "Soccer, Class & History | Feature | Tucson Weekly."
Rick Lamond More than 1 year ago
Even if one had absolutely no appreciation for horse racing at all, the loss of local commerce, entertainment and employment (jobs) for the "development" of soccer fields is illogical and indefensible. Could anyone imagine soccer games being supported by 3,000 people on a slow day? The local citizenry there should carefully consider their elected officials and the leadership (or lack thereof) that is behind this boondoggle.
John Howland More than 1 year ago
The County Administrator's name is Huckelberry;what does that tell you?
Diane Hain More than 1 year ago
The University of Arizona, in Tucson in Pima County, is home to the Race Track Industry Program. I can not believe they would sit back, do nothing, and allow Rillito to close! That little track is a real gem. Even moving or changing it would be criminal.
Diane Hain More than 1 year ago
The University of Arizona is home of the Race Track Industry Program! How can they be letting this happen? Why was this article written without an interview from Doug Reed, the program's director, or someone else on the program staff? I just can't believe R.T.I.P. is going to quietly sit back and just let this happen.
Beenthere Donethat More than 1 year ago
I believe this is one where if enough of us shout, we could make a difference. Rillito's live attendance is greater than Aqueduct's, yet if your add the purses together for a whole card, it might not add up to that of race 1 at Aqueduct. The people there simply enjoy horse racing and that is a rare thing. We cannot let them tear down the track where the photo finish was invented or the 3F chute is a national historic treasure for the sake of soccer, especially when there is much land in the county that can be easily be made into the soccer complex they want to build. This is solely about stealing Rillito's location and using it to promote semi pro level soccer that is doomed to failure by definition. They should build the soccer complex where they want to move Rillito to, and leave Rillito alone, investigating ways to expand its grand historic presence rather than to crush it. There should be no question that track deserves unwavering protection. It is so strange that the people who should be protecting it are the ones the track needs protection from. Even Bob Baffert had humble beginnings at Rillto. C'mon.
Greg More than 1 year ago
Didnt think they had soccor moms driving around that far south, bummer.