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Our Opinion: Putting money on the kids

County panel on right track in giving youth soccer fields priority over Rillito racing

In a face-off between Pima County's horse-racing lovers and its youth soccer players, the kids should win every time.

In a face-off between Pima County's horse-racing lovers and its youth soccer players, the kids should win every time.

The process is just out of the starting gate, but the future of horse racing at Rillito Park Race Track is taking shape. Pima County voters ultimately will pick the winners in a November 2008 bond vote.

Racing is guaranteed at Rillito through the end of 2009. After that, the future is bleak. A county Parks & Recreation Department subcommittee puts conversion of Rillito into a soccer and recreational complex high on its priority list, far above upgrading or moving the race track.

The subcommittee’s recommendations still have to go through the county’s Bond Oversight Committee, to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and then to the Board of Supervisors, which will have the final say on the size and shape of the bond proposal.

We think the subcommittee is on the right track in choosing youth soccer over horse racing as the focus for Rillito, if it should come to that.

The county should not subsidize horse racing – or any other professional sports venture – with taxpayer money. That’s the case with Rillito.

The county spent $100,000 to repair the racetrack last year and will have to spend more to get it ready for the 2008 racing season.

Structural problems exist with the grandstands of the aging facility, which was built in 1943. That repair job is estimated at $1.5 million, which the county has said it will not provide. Bottom line: Revenue from horse racing does not offset the costs.

A plan to relocate the racetrack to a new regional sports complex in Marana has fallen through. The complex won’t be big enough to include a horse track.

We’d be all for a public-private partnership, with the county’s racing community taking the lead, to relocate racing to the Pima County Fairgrounds. It’s not a prime location, but facilities for horses already exist there.

And if a white knight (read: private investor) were to pony up the $5 million or so it would take to build a new track, that would be fine with us, too. But such a savior is not likely to be galloping over the horizon any time soon.

That’s because the “sport of kings” in Tucson, and around the nation, occupies an ever-smaller niche in the consciousness of the sports fan.

Horse racing is becoming a fringe sport. Rillito drew about 4,000 people for each date of its abbreviated four-weekend season, which ended in early March. That sounds good, but it’s comparable to a fair night’s attendance at a Side-winders game, and you have to think the same people were showing up at the track each day.

Conversely, soccer – and we’re talking grassroots, youth soccer, not the packaged “spectacle” that is David Beckham – is booming. Quality soccer fields are at a premium around town, and Rillito’s dead-center-of-the-city location at 4502 N. First Ave. makes it a great place for a recreational complex.

We’re aware that the racetrack reeks of charm and that part of it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The loss of a historical site is lamentable, but the improved facilities for soccer justify the sacrifice.

Yeah, but why not spare Rillito and just play soccer on the grassy areas surrounding nearly every Tucson public school? That’s a possibility raised by several members of the Citizen’s online community. It’s not that simple.

A regulation soccer field is at least as big as a football field: 100 yards to 130 yards long, and at least 70 yards wide. It would be nice if the ground were flat and the grass were cut short and if the fields were lighted for evening play during Tucson’s never-ending summer.

Clustering several fields in one location makes sense, meaning space for additional parking would have to be part of the equation. A properly designed soccer complex takes up a lot of room – more than is available at most Tucson-area schools – if you want to do things right.

And why shouldn’t you want to do it up right? We’re talking about Tucson’s children – you know, our future, the apples of our eye, the young men and women who will be financing our retirements through their Social Security taxes.

It’s not necessary to recite the facts and figures surrounding childhood obesity in the United States: Everyone knows Johnny and Jane are a little on the plump side, a problem that the good, clean fun of youth soccer could ameliorate.

It would be nice to think that the county officials and voters would place the health and recreational needs of kids and their families ahead of the need of horse racing fans to be able to box a trifecta.

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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