Rillito track brings in millions, but still set to close
Nicholas Smith photo

Horse racing will soon join the list of activities that no longer call Tucson home.

The 25-year lease the Rillito Park Race Track has with Pima County will end at the beginning of next year, after that, horse racing will bide it’s time until the facility at North First Avenue at the Rillito River is raised for soccer fields. This, despite the fact that horse racing generates millions of dollars for the region’s economy.

A long-range plan to establish a site for an 18-field, regional soccer tournament awaits the Rillito property. Until the money can be raised through a bond election, horse racing would be allowed to continue operation, albeit for an unspecified amount of time and a higher lease with the county.

“It would be extended on an annual basis until soccer can actually get going,” said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. “It’s unlikely soccer will replace the facilities for probably, my guess is three to four years.”

The county-owned land the facility sits on already has several soccer fields and is estimated to be worth $2.6 million. The new soccer park would cost anywhere from $12 million to $18 million to build, Huckelberry estimates.

Beyond its historical significance, the 66-year-old racetrack made up a significant portion of the state’s horseracing.

From 1972 to 1982, there were 2,503 races which accounted for 45 percent of all quarter horse racing in the state. During that time, nearly $2.8 million in prize money was awarded, or 36 percent of what was given out in Arizona.

Today, the park contributes least $3.3 million through races alone, according to a conservative metric used by the University of Arizona’s Racetrack Management Program to estimate a racetrack’s economic impact.

A 2001 report by the university estimated the state’s horse racing industry generates $108 million in expenditures.

Rillito General Manager Pat White said the benefit to the region extends beyond the profit the track makes.

“We do know that there is an increase in a lot of phases of economy here in Tucson: the feed stores, the restaurants, the horsemen that all come to work here, we have 100 employees,” she said. “So there’s just a lot of ways that it does help Tucson even though they don’t want to think so.”

Former county supervisor Ed Moore said the situation amounts to the departure of yet another tourist attraction.

“Attendance at the track is very close to what the White Sox had. It’s been a very successful season this year,” Moore said. “We can’t afford to give away another popular spectator sport.”

Last year, the average Spring Training attendance of the White Sox was 5,820 per game. The Diamondbacks and Rockies had attendances of 7,393 and 5,182, respectively. Not counting the final weekend (Feb. 21-22) of racing, the Rillito track drew an average crowd of 5,400 for the previous nine days. White estimates the track will have taken in more than $100,000 in bets by the end of the two-month season.

Moore helped bring racing back to Rillito in the mid-1980s after the track closed at the beginning of the decade and also sat on the committee that ultimately decided on the soccer facility plan in 2006. He recognized the need for such a facility, but wondered why the county chose this particular spot instead of somewhere with vacant land.

Huckelberry listed numerous reasons why the Rillito Race Track was the ideal location for a regional soccer park.

“County-owned property, centrally located and it is probably better utilization, meaning that more use per capita by broader diversity of people,” he said, adding that a new location for horseracing will be found once the park is built.

The Rillito track is notable in horseracing history because it marks the birthplace of organized quarter horse racing, which is done with a smaller, faster breed of horses on a straight track. The ⅜-mile chute was built in 1943, replacing an earlier horseracing track near the Tack Room restaurant. In 1953, an oval was added to accommodate thoroughbred racing.

While the chute is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the rest of the 88-acre site is not, something Moore is working towards.

“It’s a major part of Tucson history from the 40s to the 60s,” he said.

Getting a building or structure on the historical registry is a just an honorary designation and does not prevent demolition. The 91-year-old Fourth Avenue Underpass, for example, was also on the national registry but was demolished in June 2007 to make room for an expanded underpass.

The county itself is not behind the effort, but is expected to comment on the matter before the end of the month, Huckelberry said, adding that the county purchased the nearby house of the man who originally built and ran the track, with the idea of turning it into a museum of sorts on Tucson’s history of horseracing.

Rillito’s eventual closure may seem like a drop in the bucket on the national scale, but the impact would be felt more on the local level.

“Not to have that presence in Tucson anymore would be a pretty big thing,” said Trey Buck, executive director of racing at the American Quarter Horse Association. “It’s where we got our start with pari-mutuel racing and a lot of things that the industry uses today were developed then. From the historical standpoint it would be big. Just from an Arizona racing standpoint it would be a pretty big deal. You’ve got Turf Paradise and you’ve got Yavapai (Downs in Prescott Valley) who have pretty good meets, but there’s nothing really going on right now for the quarter horses.”

The closure won’t overtly affect the Race Track Management Program, but having the track nearby was convenient.

“From the historical perspective it does have a lot of connection. It’s not a lab, but it’s a good place for students to get experience,” said program director Doug Reed. “The quarter horse is special in the southwest obviously, so the students, even if they come from other parts of the world, learn about quarter horse racing.”

 Contact reporter Nicholas Smith at nsmith@azbiz.com or (520) 295-4238.