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Horsemen Raise Funds to Keep Sonoita Racing

Arizona horsemen rally to keep racing alive at the Santa Cruz County Fair.

By Richard Chamberlain
April 29, 2012

"The Match Race" by Fred Fellows

"The Match Race" by Fred Fellows

American Quarter Horses will race this coming weekend at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Sonoita, Arizona. The two-day meet May 5-6 will be the 97th consecutive year for horse racing at Sonoita.

But racing in Southern Arizona is alive now only because local citizens and horsemen decided to do something about it. A fundraiser organized by Deborah Fellows has raised money for purses and other expenses to conduct the races.

“The fundraiser has been going on for about the last two months, and the racing is Kentucky Derby weekend,” said Deborah Fellows. “So far we’ve raised $80,000, and that doesn’t include the people who donated for the toteboard and other things.”

Fellows is a western artist whose husband is Cowboy Artist of America Fred Fellows and whose father is former world champion bronc rider Deb Copenhaver, who is in the hall of fame of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

“My dad ran Quarter Horses, and I grew up around them in the Northwest – Idaho, Washington and Montana,” says Fellows, who with her husband moved 11 years ago from Montana to Arizona. “Fred and I are both artists and we both team rope. My interest has always been in running horses, and we’ve got a couple little horses that we run here. We’re just kind of a combination of everything a little bit horsey and arty.”

Combining horses and art made the difference in this case.

“Last year, the State of Arizona, like a lot of states around the nation, just dropped the funding on fairs, rodeos and horse races and everything like that,” Fellows said. “Five years ago, the state was funding this little fairground at $120,000 – and they dropped it to nothing. Last year, Sonoita kept the races alive because one guy alone came up with $50,000, but they couldn’t go back to that well again. The races were going to stop. This is a privately owned fairgrounds, and we have a Christmas dinner get-together, where we elect a president and board and everything. Last Christmas, we were all together, and we said we’ve got to make some decisions about the horse races because it’s in trouble. I stood up at the meeting and said whatever we do, we cannot drop the contiguous line of 97 years of horse racing. We stand for something in the industry – Quarter Horse racing started here in Arizona, we can’t drop it!

“Fred and I suggested a fundraiser,” she continued. “Fred had done a painting of a little Tres Seis racehorse that I had that he gave me for Christmas one year; it’s called ‘The Match Race.’ We offered prints of that little painting as a fundraiser. I told Fred we don’t have to go for the deep pockets, that if we could get enough people out there to give 5 bucks or 50 or 100, we could just touch everybody for a little bit and see what we can do. It was sweet! Fred and I picked up all the cost on printing them, signed them and put them in tubes, and we told the local people you just go make hay. And we sold 200. We’re having a horse meet!”

The meet is only two days, and so will not include futurities, derbies or any other races requiring trials. But horsemen will have two days to run their horses in allowance and condition races that otherwise would not be possible.

“Everything is going to be a one-time, first-come/first-served type of stakes or allowance race,” says Loretta Brasher, the executive secretary of the Arizona Quarter Racing Association. “I applaud – and everybody else does, too – the little racetracks that have done it on their own. People say none of the county fairs can afford to run live race dates without money from the state, when the state dried up the funds. Sonoita has done it two years in a row now. This is the second year that they’ve said we’re going to go to our community and we’re going to get the money.

“This means everything to Arizona and the racing industry,” Brasher continued. “People need to know that a little-bitty tiny racetrack in a little-bitty tiny town is fighting to keep their live racing. People need to know what can be done when they set their minds to it.”