Wrangler Racing Aces Blog

Here's to history and to champions-in-the-making.

There is both historic tradition and history-in-the-making to enjoy this weekend.

Rillito Continues to Make History
By Jennifer K. Hancock

Historic Rillito Park Racetrack in Tucson, Arizona, opened its 14-day live meet February 11 with a record-breaking handle on the opening-day card which featured eight races. Estimates for on-track attendance totaled more than 5,000, and more than $144,000, a record, was wagered thanks in part from Rillito’s signal being sent out.

“Opening weekend once again they do something historic at Rillito,” said Loretta Brasher, who is the executive director of the Arizona Quarter Racing Association and the recent recipient of AQHA’s Millie Vessels Award. “Mike Weiss, who is the general manager, started working on sending out the signal for Rillito last year. This year, he must have really pulled out all the stops because the handle on opening day between the signal going out and our on-track was over $144,000.”

Opened in 1943 and touted as the birthplace of Quarter Horse racing, Rillito Park includes more than 90 acres and in addition to the track is also home to the J. Rukin Jelks Stud Farm historic site, athletic fields and the Rillito Pavilions, which is home of Sunday Heirloom Farmer’s Markets. Listed in 2012 on the National Register of Historic Places, the future of racing at the track was up in the air until January, when the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to approve a four-year extension to the contract lease for Rillito Park Foundation to operate racing at the facility until 2021. 

“Opening day is always awesome, but the thing about Rillito is the people are electric,” Brasher said. “You see people – friends – that you haven't seen in a year that just come out to Rillito. You see new people all the time – families with their kids. Everybody is just lighthearted, and it’s the way racing used to be. It’s a throwback. That’s the only way that I can describe it. No place else has that electricity, and it’s against all odds. We’ve lost our whole barn area. Soccer fields are located right outside our Quarter Horse chute. Kids are right there playing soccer while we’re racing, but no one had any problems. The track was awesome. Dick Oliver is our track man, and he has really, really done a fantastic job. Jaye Wells, who is president of the Foundation, I can’t say enough about that man and how he pulls things off.”

Track management had less than a month to finalize the meet after receiving their lease extension in January. The track’s barns were torn down to make room for the soccer fields, and horsemen are relying on temporary stalls during the meet. New barns will be built on the east side of the track, which will allow shorter time between races and access to the infield for spectators. The Rillito Park Foundation, which is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization formed in 2011, is seeking donations to help offset the cost of rebuilding the track’s barns. Donations can be made through a link at rillitoracetrack.com.

The 2017 Winter Meet at Rillito will run through March 19 and have six weekends of live racing. This year’s schedule includes two Fridays with Thoroughbred racing in the late afternoon and Quarter Horse racing under the lights. Gates open at 10 a.m. on race days and close after the last simulcast race. General admission is $5, and clubhouse admission is $10.

The clubhouse is worth a visit according to Brasher to see the recent additions of photos and racing artifacts.

“They've just cleaned up the clubhouse, and they have memorabilia everywhere up there,” Brasher said. “They found old pictures and blew them up of jockeys from the 40s. There’s a really nice display honoring jockey Garrett Gomez, who has family ties to Tucson.” 

The race calendar includes opportunities for AQHA Challenge-enrolled athletes. The Rillito Bonus Challenge will be contested on February 18, and the Rulon Goodman AQHA Challenge Maiden Stakes will be held on March 12. The final for the Rillito Derby, which is sponsored by AQRA, will be run on February 26.

“Rillito has a derby every year, and this is the first time in five or six years that we’ve had trials,” Brasher said. “We had the crème de la crème. We had some good, good horses running in the trials. And Rillito’s having the Bonus Challenge again this year.”

One race that is near to Brasher’s heart will take place on closing day, the “Papa” Wayne Brasher Memorial. Brasher’s beloved husband passed away in 2015.

Every race day includes special activities and some race days include themes such as First Responders Day and Hispanic Heritage Days.

“I just can't say enough about Rillito,” Brasher said. “I love Rillito. It’s one of the great things that hasn't gone away yet.”

The Race to the Champions of Champions is On!
By Martha Claussen

The first qualifying event to the Grade 1, $600,000 Champion of Champions, will be decided on Sunday night at Los Alamitos. A great field will compete in the Grade 1, $150,900 Los Alamitos Winter Championship with several recent graded stakes winners and a few on the brink of greatness.

It’s tough to ignore BH Lisas Boy, who returned to action in trials on January 27 in fine form. Bred and owned by Bill Hoburg, the son of Mighty Invictus had a terrific 2016 campaign, culminating with a second-place finish in the $350,000 Bank of America Challenge Championship. Freshened for the year, he is now trained by John Cooper with Cesar DeAlba as his pilot. His winning trial clocking of :19.944 seconds was the fastest of the night and he was the only horse to qualify under 20 seconds. Cooper and DeAlba won the Los Al Winter Championship last year with the iconic Moonist. A win on Friday with BH Lisas Boy would be both sweet and bittersweet as the passing of Moonist last year was heartbreaking for his connections and racing fans as well.

He Looks Hot is a very capable entrant as well. Bred and owned by Ed Allred, the 5-year-old son of Walk Thru Fire won the 2014 Los Al Two Million and has never finished out of the money at the distance of 400 yards. The Scott Willoughby trainee has had “troubled trips” in five of his last six starts, but if he gets a clean trip under regular rider Carlos Huerta, look out!  His career bankroll stands at $990,835, so a victory puts this gelding on millionaire’s row! 

2016 Champion of Champions victor Zoomin For Spuds posted the third-fastest qualifying time and is the pride and joy of his 84-year-old owner and breeder, Jim Walker. Sent off at odds of 10-1 in the Champion of Champions, the 4-year-old Zoomin for Bux gelding is no longer overlooked by fans or horsemen. His Los Al record is impeccable with six stakes wins last year for his likeable conditioner Monty Arrossa. Drawing the rail should be no issue as he won the Z. Wayne Griffin Director Trials from that post to clinch his berth to the Champion of Champions.

Stevie B First Cash does not boast the Grade 1 record as some of the top contenders, but the 4-year-old son of First Down Dash out of the Spit Curl Diva mare Spit Curl Dash, has plenty of potential. Trained by Bret Vickery, Stevie finished in the top three in each of his 12 starts last year. He’s solid at this distance, and will break outside of BH Lisas Boy under Jose Alvarez.  A good break will be essential, but at 8-1, he could bring some value to this very exciting feature.

Martha Claussen’s Top Four Selections:
#9 BH Lisa’s Boy
#4 He Looks Hot
#1 Zoomin For Spuds
#10 Stevie B First Cash

Wrangler Racing Aces in February
Visit the Q-Racing page on Facebook or follow the Aces @Q-Racing on Twitter for timely updates on Quarter Horse racing across North America. The Wrangler Racing Aces are following the horses, jockeys, trainers and milestones at Los Alamitos, Louisiana Downs, Rillito Park, Sunland Park and Turf Paradise.

AQHA News and information is a service of the American Quarter Horse Association. For more news and information, follow @AQHARacing on Twitter, “like” Q-Racing on Facebook and visit www.aqharacing.com.