Q-Racing Blog: Racing at Rillito

Take a moment to honor a long racing tradition.

Quarter Racing Journal

Rillito is filled with historic tradition.

Rillito Park Race Track in Tucson is racing. It is no longer the epicenter of American Quarter Horse racing. However, after controversy, it is running this winter. There are six weekends of racing with 14 racing days, including two Fridays, that run through March 19.

The Rillito Park Foundation manages the Rillito track and other sections of the now-expanded park, including the historic original J. Rukin Jelks’ stud farm, 11 soccer fields and farmers’ market facilities. The foundation was formed in 2011 to resolve an impasse between horse racing and soccer interests. The soccer backers said it was a growing sport and needed more room, however recognized the horse racing history and tradition. Plus, money talks, and it would have been expensive to tear down the grandstand while racing provides revenue.

In January, the Pima County Board of Supervisors, by a 5-0 vote, approved an extension of racing at Rillito Park through 2021. The Bert W. Martin Foundation donated $1 million for grandstand and facility improvements.

In this time when compromises seem rare, the people in Tucson should be applauded.

In many ways, Rillito is the birthplace of Quarter Horse racing from when it started in 1943. It is home to AQHA historical marker number eight. In 2012, Rillito Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The AQHA historical marker states: “This famous track on the banks of the Rillito River was the birthplace of many racing innovations still in use today. The Southern Arizona Horse Breeders Association, the organization that pioneered Quarter Horse Racing in Tucson, had been hosting races at the Hacienda Moltacqua track since 1941. When Moltacqua was sold in 1943, J. Rukin Jelks volunteered the use the training track on his ranch and it was called Rillito Race Track.

“Under the direction of Melville Haskell, an American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame inductee, and Van Smelker, who later became head of the AQHA Performance Department, SAHBA experimented with grading races, weighted handicaps, futurities, derbies and stake races, and photo-electric timers. World famous sprinters such as Shue Fly, Joe Reed II, Piggin String, Hard Twist, Queenie and Miss Panama all ran at Rillito.”

This precedes organized racing at Ruidoso Downs and Los Alamitos.

There was unorganized racing in Mr. Miller’s cornfield during the 1930s, the site of Ruidoso Downs, and then pari-mutuel racing began in 1947. The track was called Hollywood Park and became Ruidoso Downs in 1953.

Frank Vessels Sr. purchased a 435-acre ranch on Katella Avenue in Cypress, California after turning $19 into a fortune in the construction business. In 1947, Frank and Grace Vessels started running match races outside their back door. In 1951, the first pari-mutuel meet was run and it rained 10 of the eleven racing days. The following year, after $100,000 in improvements, a 14-day meet was run and revenues doubled.

Ruidoso Downs and Los Alamitos run multiple seven-figure futurities and derbies, far outpacing Rillito and any comparison now would be completely unfair. Nonetheless, there is racing at Rillito and that is important in Quarter Horse racing history and should be respected.

On February 26, the $15,000 Rillito Derby will be contested with eight horses qualifying from two trials.

The Alvaro Monteverdo-owned and -trained Cowboys Dynasty ranks as the horse to beat in the derby after he won the second trial by 1 1/4lengths with the fastest-qualifying time of :17.574 for 350 yards. In his prior start, the son of FDD Dynasty dominated the $59,000 AZQRA Futurity by 1 1/4 lengths.

Juan Sepulveda’s homebred Sniper 1, a gelding by The Bounty Man, is also on a winning streak. He won his maiden two starts ago and then took the first Rillito Derby trial by a nose with the second-fastest time of :17.588. He concluded 2016 with thirds in the $28,000 AQRA Turf Paradise Futurity and the $20,000 ASOA Futurity.

Arizona Quarter Horse racing has impacted the national scene since Rillito’s glory years. The Allred Bros’ family of Mesa still produce some of the finest Quarter Horses in the breed. Hall of fame trainer Bob Baffert grew up between Tucson and the Mexican border. He trained Quarter Horses on the Arizona circuit before moving to Los Alamitos. A young Baffert was a jockey at Rillito Park. Thankfully, he became a trainer.

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.