Voter mandate runs out this year
January 15, 2009, 8:05 p.m.
Rillito Race Track, a fixture of southern Arizona winter entertainment since 1943, opens what is likely to be its last racing season Saturday.
The season, which runs Saturdays and Sundays (except Feb. 1) through Feb. 22, will start under a shadow of doubt. Voter approval for races at the oval near First Avenue and River Road expires Dec. 31, and the county plans to turn the 83-acre site into a soccer complex.
The county has not yet funded the conversion to a soccer complex, though half the stables have been razed and three soccer fields are in the track infield.
But unless a new track is found, the starting gates will be silenced in Pima County after the last race Feb. 22.
"We need a racetrack," said trainer Armando Castellanos, 42, who was shoveling sawdust into stalls Wednesday. "There's a lot of horses in Tucson."
Castellanos, who has worked at Rillito for 17 years, will be out of a job during racing season if the track closes, he said.
Pat White is president of the Pima County Horsemen's Association, the nonprofit group that manages the track. She has been the general manager since 1987, and she is not so sure the track's run will end in February.
"I feel hopeful that we are going to stay here," she said Wednesday.
Two years ago, the county agreed to turn the racetrack into a soccer complex by 2010 and try to find another venue for the races. Since then the county has built three soccer fields in the infield of the five-eighths mile track but nothing more.
A plan to build a track in Marana fell through, and no private funds have been found to prop up the track.
"No one is really very interested in putting any money into a track that only runs two months a year," White said.
Rillito's fate is being played out across the nation, said Bob Allison, a track steward who worked at Rillito for more than two decades before moving to New Mexico in the late 1980s.
"In another 50 years or so, you won't see much horse racing anywhere," said the veteran track monitor, who came back to work the season here.
Rillito had its heyday in the mid-1960s, when it was the best track in Arizona, Allison said.
Turf Paradise in Phoenix might have taken that crown now, but Rillito was nicer in its prime, he said.
"It's a shame time has to change things, because this place has been here since the '40s. It's always been a nice little circuit," Allison said. "It was nicer than Turf Paradise ever thought of being."
The Horsemen's Association has been compiling information to try to get the track on the National Register of Historic Places. If that happens, White believes public opinion could help sway the county to keep the track open.
Until then, a stalled bond package from the county will give them time, she said.
"It's the county we're fighting. The only thing that slowed our demolition is that the county doesn't have any money to build anything or tear anything down," she said.
Rillito will run nine races each Saturday and eight each Sunday.
Most races are for quarter horses, though some thoroughbred races will be in the mix when enough horses enter, Allison said.