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News for Southeastern Arizona, provided by the University of Arizona School of Journalism

Rillito Park Racetrack, the dark horse of Quarter Horse racing

Tucson’s Rillito Park Racetrack is known as the birthplace of Quarter Horse racing. (Photo by: Haley Ford/Arizona Sonora News Service)

Each time the jockeys and horses line up at the starting gates of Rillito Park Racetrack for the 2017 winter meet, the anticipation of the starting bell stirs excitement.

In many cultures, the chime of a bell can symbolize death or an end of a chapter, but for Rillito Park Racetrack and Tucson horse racing fans, sounds of the starting bell signify the track’s new lease on life.

Since 1943, Rillito Park Racetrack has sat along the backdrop of the Catalina Mountains attracting nearly 4,000 race fans every Saturday during the racing season.

Because of the tireless passion and dedication expressed from local race fans, Rillito Park Racetrack has been granted a lease extension from the Pima County Board of Supervisors through June 2021.

“The whole process was very mixed emotion. People have a lot of heart and soul for this track. Even though we were optimistic, we have been before this board before and been shot down,” said Mike Weiss, Rillito Racing Inc. general manager.

Once again, the racetrack escaped near death after a span of trying times and run-ins with local soccer organizations that also occupy the racetrack. Without the lease extension, Rillito Park Racetrack might have been demolished.

“There is a certain feeling in the racing community that this is where racing was built. So why would you take it away from us,” said Richard Chamberlain, former editor of the American Quarter Horse Association Journal.

Chamberlain expressed his support for the cause stating that he believed in the importance of creating more soccer fields to support local youth sports, but ultimately Rillito Park Racetrack’s place in Tucson and history should not be erased.

Rillito Park Racetrack is recognized as the birthplace of modern Quarter Horse racing and is known for its legacy of advancements such as the introduction of the photo finish and the straightaway “chute system”.

Rillito Park Racetrack is a gathering place for many in the Tucson community. (Photo by: Haley Ford/Arizona Sonora News Service)

“Rillito shines through it all. It is a pillar in the racing community,” said Chamberlain.

The lease extension included a $1 million-dollar grant from the Bert W. Martin Foundation and will be used to upgrade accommodations throughout the grandstand, clubhouse,and other facilities.

In recent years, track maintenance costs have accumulated, testing the strength of the track’s non-profit parent organizations, Rillito Racing Inc. and the Rillito Park Foundation.

“We can’t keep going year to year with the money that we are spending. We don’t get the money until after the season concludes. We are just scrambling to make it, but going forward we need a barn area and that is our priority and of course other necessary renovations,” said Weiss.

Rillito Racing Inc., the management organization who oversees all sport and business related activities at the facility, is ecstatic about the track’s foreseeable future.

For the first time in track history, the entire six-week winter meet will be broadcast live across the country through various outlets and media platforms, including 60 New York off-track betting parlors.

Rillito Racing Inc. also will debut the Parribet Racing Industry Student Experience, in conjunction with the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program, where students will be granted hands-on experience with track maintenance, the broadcast production, business, and more.

“The Tucson locals sold me on this, just coming in and seeing the excitement and tradition is special. The people come out and the horse racing is in their blood,” said Weiss.

The 2017 winter meet runs through March 19th. For a full list of dates and times click here.

Haley Ford is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at haleycford@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for high-resolution photos.

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