Rillito Faces Uncertain Future

The historic Rillito Park prepares for an uncertain future.

Rillito Park is a historic place in American Quarter Horse history.

After many decades of hosting horse racing, historic Rillito Park Racetrack in Tucson, Arizona, is preparing for what might be its final season.

According to a report by KOLD-TV, the CBS affiliate in Tucson, Pima County has scheduled demolition of the Rillito grandstand and stables after the 2014 season ends on March 30.

There has been an ongoing battle between the horse racing community and the county dating back to 1984. Bulldozers were ready to tear down the grandstand and flatten the stables until county supervisor Ed Moore stepped forward, put it to a voter referendum and the voters said no.

"Times have changed and Tucson has become more urban," said Patti Shirley, head of the Equine Encore Foundation and a former racehorse trainer. "Horse racing is not as popular as it once was here."

Still, she says it "outdraws every other Pima County attraction."

"When Rillito closes, it's the death knell for horse racing in Southern Arizona, and I definitely think it's going to happen after this year," Shirley added.

Pima County plans to turn the 88-acre Rillito Park property into a tournament ready soccer facility with 18 fields. A downturn in the economy put those plans on hold in 2009 and horse racing was given a five year reprieve. The five years are up after the 2014 season ends.

"The scheduled improvements that will begin after this year's racing season will continue to remove dilapidated horse barns in favor of additional soccer fields and public park amenities," county administrator Chuck Huckelberry wrote in a memo sent to the county board.

Shirley takes that to mean just about everything.

"The county has told us we don't want you to leave but we're tearing down the barns, we're tearing down the grandstand, we're looking at tearing down the clubhouse and we're going to use half of your parking lot for something else," Shirley said.

She says the county told her "the race track is okay, you can still have racing."

But Shirley says that's impossible without the amenities.

"We're not giving up" she said. “The whole 88 acres is historic, (and) we thought that would save us. But the truth is, Pima County owns the property and the owner can do what ever they want.”

Shirley told KOLD-TV that the county had dangled a $6-million facility at the Pima County Fairgrounds south of Tucson as a carrot to get them to move.

"With the economy the way it is, that's not going to happen," she said.

Besides she adds, the cost to replicate the facilities at Rillito would cost from $16 to $19 million. Moving the track so far away from town would hurt attendance, and she believes it won't be long before "nobody knows we have racing here."

Still, there are efforts to save it. Moore has sent a letter to the state saying the county has no legal right to use bond money to replace the track and grandstand. However, the state auditor general disagrees.

Rillito Park has a storied history dating back to 1953, when the oval track was built for Thoroughbred racing. Until then, it was one of the premier Quarter Horse tracks in the country.

In 1996, the American Quarter Horse Association placed an historical marker at the track, recognizing it for its contributions to Quarter Horse racing.

Rillito’s 2014 meet opens February 8.

"We're not going to market this as the final season," Shirley said. "But if someone asks, I'll tell them I think it is."

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