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Horse race track may stay open for as many as 4 years

Citizen Staff Writer



Rillito Park Race Track will apparently get a reprieve, possibly as long as four years, while Pima County tries to come up with money to convert the North Side track to a soccer facility.

“At this point, that’s the only thing that’s saving us. They don’t have enough money to tear it down,” said Bill Matthews, who runs the nonprofit Save the Rillito Race Track.

Rillito has been on thin ice since the county supervisors agreed in 2006 to turn the track into an 18-field soccer complex. In 1984, voters guaranteed horse racing a home at the North First Avenue facility south of River Road for 25 years – through Dec. 31, 2009.

Shortly before the end of what was to be the track’s last racing season in February, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry told the Pima County Horsemen’s Association it would likely be able to keep the track open for “three or four years,” said Pat White, the group’s president.

Huckelberry did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Thursday.

The prospect of having a 2010 season at Rillito had the Horsemen’s Association busy in recent weeks. The group poured $55,000 into painting and repairing windows, railings and stairways.

A crew of seven also screened in the grandstand to keep birds out and recoated the reflective roof, said Bonnie White-McDaniel, who supervised the work.

“We’ve been doing this for five weeks,” White-McDaniel said.

To prepare for the January start of the season, more repairs will be made this fall, she said.

The track opened in 1943 and is part of the nation’s “county fair” racing circuit. The five-eighths-mile oval features the first quarter horse chute, or starting system, in the nation.

The chute is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 2009 season featured 11 days of racing on weekends in January and February. The track drew more than 9,000 fans on the next to last day and 10,000 on the final race day. It’s a likely attendance record, White said.

“We’ve had seven and eight before,” she said, “but never nine and 10.”

Funding for the soccer fields and a new race track at the Pima County Fairgrounds, on Houghton Road south of Interstate 10, would come from an unscheduled bond election.

The Horsemen’s Association has tried to find private backers for the track but none has emerged.

Looks like the ponies will keep running at Rillito Park Race Track

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