Soccer is fast-growing sport while horse racing is declining
Horse racing has a significant history at Rillito Park Race Track, where quarter-horse races got their got their start more than a half-century ago.
The National Park Service took note of Rillito’s place in the sport, putting the track’s front straightaway on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1980s.
Horse racing has a history at Rillito. But it has no future.
Instead, this prime piece of real estate should be used for the highest and best recreational use. And that is soccer, not horse racing.
The trends are clear. For the past couple of years, horse racing has been held at Rillito only four weekends per year, drawing an average of 4,000 people per session.
Saturday, there were about 150,000 people at the Kentucky Derby, the crown jewel of the sport. But that is the exception. Horse racing is fading. Business Week reported that nationally, on-track gambling at horse races fell from $2.9 billion in 1996 to $1.7 billion in 2006 – a 40 percent plunge.
In the meantime, soccer has been booming. Some 18 million Americans play soccer – 78 percent of them under age 18. Soccer is the fastest-growing college and high school sport in the United States.
In Tucson, tens of thousands of children compete for space on a limited number of soccer fields. Parents endure long drives to the Phoenix area where fields are plentiful and there are several highly praised tournament sites.
Horse racing should remain a part of Tucson’s recreation menu. But as it becomes more of a fringe sport, it only makes sense to find a place on the fringes of the city where it can continue.
That place logically is the Pima County Fairgrounds. The horse races at Rillito are part of a Southwestern fairgrounds circuit, so the move makes sense. There already are barns and other equine facilities at the fairgrounds.
At Rillito, the track, grandstands, barns, parking lot and other horse facilities take up an inordinate amount of space for something used for its intended purpose only eight times a year.
From a practical matter, there will be at least two more seasons of horse racing at Rillito. And there may be more.
Unless the Pima County Board of Supervisors decides to hold a bond election this fall – and that appears unlikely – a lack of money will preserve the status quo.
But the county should clearly signal its intention to make Rillito a soccer field complex. Planning should begin to move horse racing to the fairgrounds so work can commence on the soccer fields and a new horse racing complex when and if bonds are approved.
Horse racing is Rillito’s past. Soccer should be its future.
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