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The Daily Wildcat

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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Left in the dust

    Sun drenched competitors have been sprinting towards the finish at Rillito Park since 1943.
    Sun drenched competitors have been sprinting towards the finish at Rillito Park since 1943.

    The thick scent of horse manure and beer combined with eyes full of dust provided the welcoming. A creaky grandstand sat in the shadows of mountains turned gold by the glaring sun. Cowboy hats sat above a bustling crowd of race fans moving in every possible direction. A couple of bucks and a wrist stamp later I found myself engulfed in a piece of Tucson culture.

    Just inside the clubhouse entrance sat a large ring bordered by numbered wooden stalls and a fence lined with curious onlookers. It was the paddock, where each horse is saddled pre-race, and a symbol of the tradition at the Rillito Park Race Track.

    “”During the national anthem you can hear a pin drop, and then it’s like ‘Let’s go!’ From then on it’s just that way,”” said Loretta Brasher, executive director of the Arizona Quarter Racing Association.

    Two UA students, Ruken Jelks and Mel Haskell, created Rillito Park in 1943 in a backyard off River Road to race horses. The track’s elementary seasons pioneered racing as it’s known today.

    Quarter horse racing on a straight track.

    The photo finish.

    The Arizona Quarter Racing Association.

    All born in Tucson.

    “”It is the place where regulated quarter horse racing started,”” said former Pima County supervisor Ed Moore.

    The grandstand seating felt like a high school football stadium. Leading up to post time people were in constant motion. Placing bets and buying drinks. Eating food and checking the paddock.

    “”There’s more than 5,000 people a day coming through here. Almost 10,000 people came through here on opening day,”” said Brasher.

    Minutes before the race the atmosphere changed.

    Anxious fans crowded the edge of the track and filed into the grandstand like ants. The competitors trotted their route in preparation. The straight track, or chute, is a 3/8 mile adrenaline rush.

    Everyone stood in unison as the gunshot launched jockey-carrying sprinters into motion. As the horses closed in on the finish line, the crowd’s rumble progressed into a roar like a passing car.

    Cheers turned to screams.

    It was a 20 second roller coaster ride from first to last with little separation between horses in such a short race.

    Reactions were in a hysterical range from thrilled to furious. When money is on the line, honest emotion tends to result.

    That’s the scene every half hour on a Saturday at Rillito Park during race season, which lasts until Feb. 22.

    However, this season will close in uncertainty. Currently, Moore is leading a fight to keep Rillito open. There is a strong push to tear down the race track in favor of an enhanced soccer facility designed to host national tournaments.

    “”I think it’s a shame when a society tears down its connections to the past,”” said Moore.

    “”We’re fighting really hard,”” said Pat White, general manager and director of racing for the track. White has been with Rillito since 1987.

    “”It means a lot. It’s one of the historical things that we want to hang on to,”” she said.

    For the next couple weekends nothing will change. The stalls and stands will fill, and for a short sprint nothing else will matter except for the furious charge to a photo finish.

    “”A wonderful race day is when everything goes right, and the weather’s good, and all the horses and jockeys are safe, and we have a lot of those days,”” said White.

    Rillito Park Race Track

    4502 N 1st Avenue

    520-293-5011

    • Races every Saturday and sunday through february 22
    • postimes 1pm
    • Clubhouse passes $5
    • annual spring fling location

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