Greg Hansen : Rillito a great place to escape for a day

2009-02-10T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen : Rillito a great place to escape for a dayOpinion by Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 10, 2009 12:00 am  • 

At no other sports venue in Tucson do you see a man wearing a hat that says "Francisco's Whip and Tack."

I want one, too, so I ask the man: "Where did you get that hat?"

"El Zarco," he says.

Where's that?

He says something I don't understand. I ask him to spell it.


He laughs. "It's in Mexico," he says.

It is Sunday at the Rillito Park Racetrack and, as always, I ask myself why I don't come more often. It is one of the best days of the year to mingle, watch people and to lose $6 on eight consecutive races.

For $48, it is wonderful entertainment.

Once you enter the gates ($3admission) at Rillito Park, it could be 1965 or 1985 or 2005. It is a timeless place. Some say historic, I say old and, yes, wrinkled, but it's a comfortable old and wrinkled.

It is a good part of our community.

On Saturday, an estimated 6,000 people, most of them wearing dateless western gear and cowboy boots, enjoyed a free-admission day and spent about $135,000 on nine races. Some of them stopped at a table with a large sign that said "KEEP RILLITO A RACE PARK."

About 100 of them signed a petition to support continued racing. A few more dropped a dollar bill into a jar to help wage a fight against the politicians.

The soccer people want Rillito Park for their own; they hope to expand the old horse track to an 18-field soccer facility next year. Can you blame them? It's a perfect location.

The fate of the 66-year-old park is ultimately in the hands of Pima County politicians. On Jan.1, 2010, they will be legally free to suspend racing and do whatever they decide is appropriate to the park.

"Every weekend we get 9,000 or 10,000 people here," said Frank DeFazio, keeper of historic Rillito Park paraphernalia who has volunteered his time to gather signatures and spread the good word. "I would hate to see this turned exclusively into a soccer park. Look at the parking lot. The interest in horse racing is pretty clear."

Indeed, even during last Sunday's afternoon rainstorm, the parking lot was almost full.

The history of Rillito Park, formerly Rillito Downs, isn't a happy one. It has been chronically plagued by ownership instability and financial issues. Since opening in 1943, a decade hasn't gone by without it being dark for at least one winter racing season.

"I moved to Tucson in 1956, and I've seen the ups and downs of the track," said Jim Roper, who has operated a barber shop on Campbell Avenue during that period. "I thought we could've been what Ruidoso's track in New Mexico has become. Tucson could've had those $1 million races. They've just never been able to sustain a solid ownership here."

Four more race days are scheduled this year: Two this weekend; two the weekend of Feb. 21-22. The smart money says that then it will almost surely yield to the legions of soccer-playing boys and girls in this valley.

No matter how aggressively the Pima County Horsemen's Association resists, the future of horse racing in Southern Arizona seems likely to change. It's possible (but not likely) it will move to the remote Pima County Fairgrounds. It's more possible it will dissolve altogether.

Those who enjoy horse racing will likely be reduced to a pair of strongly attended spring weekends at the fairgrounds in Sonoita.

Rillito's old grandstand facility, although functional, is in need of a makeover.

"The county has done much to improve it since I came here in 1970 to run Tucson Greyhound Park," DeFazio said. "I don't know why they haven't taken more pride in it."

Therein lies a problem: Few in government have been willing to be visible, aggressive, responsible and to pursue a better future for horse racing.

The same thing applies to the ongoing demise of spring training baseball in Tucson. It's always someone else's problem. Apathy reigns.

"I would like to see the lease for horse racing renewed; it's part of our culture," said Tucson attorney Burt Kinerk, vice chairman of the Pima County Fair Racing Commission. "We can build soccer fields elsewhere, but this is realistically the only place to have horse racing. It would be nice if Tucson could preserve some of these things instead of just letting them go."

It seems inevitable that horse racing will join the sad list of sporting events to exit Tucson: an LPGA tournament, the Copper Bowl football game, the Chicago White Sox spring training, the Pro Bowler's Association tour, the Pacific Coast League Tucson Sidewinders, USA Baseball and the Arizona Heat softball team.

Every time I lean against the rails and smell the dirt, or watch the horses and jockeys parade from the Rillito paddock, I see someone who is a ringer for Jack Palance or Richard Boone. There's a certain romance to Rillito. It has history, and it has charm. It would be a mistake to let it go.


• What: Horse racing at Rillito Park

• Where: 4502 N. First Ave.

• When: 1 p.m. Feb. 14-15, 21-22

• Cost: $3

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or

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