The Rillito Park Horse Racetrack will likely have a new operator when racing resumes next year.
Pima County has accepted a proposal from the Rillito Park Foundation to operate horse racing at the track, ending the 25-year run of the Pima County Horsemen’s Association.
The county and the Rillito Park Foundation will now have to negotiate a lease agreement and, ultimately, the Board of Supervisors have to approve it.
The nonprofit group is already renovating the historic J. Rukin Jelks Stud Farm house and gardens at the park.
The group set its sights on horse racing operations at the park three years ago when it was formed, but had to wait until the county’s agreement with the horsemen’s association expired.
This was the first time since the horsemen’s association took over the track that they had to compete with another group.
“No one else has been foolish enough to take on the county,” said Patti Shirley, the group’s vice president.
The association was disappointed with the county’s decision to pick a new operator, but they’ll support the new group as long as horse racing continues, Shirley said.
“If the Rillito Park Foundation can make it work and keep horse racing alive, then God bless them,” she said. “I’m just concerned they can’t.”
There have been concerns, mostly from the horsemen’s association, that county officials want to eventually get rid of horse racing in favor of adding more soccer fields and finding other uses for the park.
Soccer supporters say the park is an ideal location for a major soccer venue that could host championship tournaments and be a boon to the local economy.
County officials already authorized about $5 million to build two new soccer fields and add lighting to existing fields at the facility.
The county also plans to tear down three older barns with historic designations and relocate two of the barns from the west end to the east end of the park.
But the Rillito Park Foundation plans to implement a series of changes that they hope will convince the county to keep horse racing.
The group has been supportive of the county’s vision for expanding soccer at the facility, as well as the decision to tear down and relocate the barns.
The foundation wants to increase racing days from 24 to 40 days, add off-track betting at the track, convert the east end of the grandstand to box seating and install big-screen monitors throughout the facility.
The group also wants to expand its marketing efforts, open a race track museum and gift shop, host a weekly farmer’s market and has expressed a willingness to maintain soccer fields at the park.
Group officials say the changes could generate $500,000 in the first year before subtracting constructions and debt costs.
“We think our success will change everyone’s tune,” said Jaye Wells, director of the foundation. “Our duty is to make it a park taxpayers can be proud of, but don’t necessarily have to pay for.”
The group has raised $175,000 and recently received a $236,000 grant to pay for improvements at the park.
Their immediate goal is to improve the track surface, Wells said.
“The city has finally grown to the point where these kinds of ideas and concepts are feasible,” he said. “It’s a hell of an opportunity.”