Horse racing may be preserved at Rillito Park Race Track

Published: Dec. 14, 2015 at 5:52 PM MST|Updated: Feb. 8, 2016 at 6:33 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Horse racing may be preserved at the Rillito Park Race Track for the next 25 years.

Pima County is expected to approve a new contract that would allow the Rillito Park Foundation to expand its racing footprint at the First Avenue and River Road facility through 2041.

It ends years of speculation over whether the racetrack would close to give way to a championship soccer complex. The county recently opened three new sports fields at the complex bringing the total to 11. But it is a far cry from the 18 needed to host national amateur soccer events. 

"These are not just soccer fields," said Tom Moulton, the director of Economic Development and Tourism. "They're multi-use sports fields."

In the end, the decision was made to make it a community complex fitting a variety of needs, including a Farmers Market on many weekends.

A feud has simmered for at least a decade as to whether the popular site would be solely a soccer complex or a horse racing venue. It now appears it will be both. 

"We brought all the users together so they all had a say in this," Moulton said.

The site will not be called Rillito Downs anymore. It's called Rillito Regional Park because of the multiple users. It will be used for football, baseball, lacrosse, rugby as well as soccer and horse racing.

The park will also be used by the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program as an incubator and hands-on teaching facility.

"That has made a big difference," Moulton said.

"It may be a compact program but its probably one of most successful programs that there is in the country," General Manager Michael Weiss said.

There are about 20 students in the program now working at the track but that may expand. Many have gotten jobs as successful trainers, managers and directors.

One of the most famous is this year's Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert.

Last season was the first year the students were involved in every aspect of the racing world from cleaning out stalls to the pari-mutuel wagering.

The Rillito Park Foundation is a non-profit, which means all profits will be funneled back into improvements for the track.

"We do believe from the non-profit side we can come and enhance the county assets so that these amenities that Tucson so sorely needs can be polished and brought up and thrive," said Jaye Wells, the director of the foundation.

Right now, horse owners are using temporary stalls and stables but it is hoped the profits will be used to build more permanent facilities. The grandstand is in need of repair and it is hoped that too will be given more than a new coat of paint.

Under terms of the agreement, the foundation will be given a five-year lease with the option of renewing for four more extensions, bringing the total to 25 years. 

If all goes well and the extensions are utilized, the facility will boast 98 straight years of horse racing.

"It's all about tradition," Moulton said. "It was the birthplace of quarter-horse racing."

The decision is also good news for tourism in the area. More than 50,000 people visited the track in 2015.

The new operators invested in a new surface, which made it safer for horses and jockeys and also contributed to a bigger handle and a drawing better horses from the Southwest.

"I'm fond of saying let's build our future by investing in our past," Wells said. "In the scope of things this is a momentus sea change."

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