By EDDIE CELAYA
Odds are if you tell a Tucsonan you plan to watch some horseracing, the response will be, “have fun in California.”
If you tell the person, no, you’ll be enjoying the sport of kings in the Old Pueblo, you’ll probably get a “Where? At the dog track?”
Such is the battle for Rillito Park Racetrack, which wrapped up its season March 19. The track bills itself as the “birthplace of quarterhorse racing in the United States.”
That history gives the place both its charm and its recent headaches.
General Manager Mike Weiss, an Ohio native who now lives in Florida, wasn’t even sure there would be a racing season this year. Pima County, which owns the land on which the track sits, didn’t extend the racing lease until January.
Track executives expected approval in 2016. “I told them in September, ‘If you don’t have an extension, you can’t keep putting money into it,’” Weiss said.
Rillito Racing Inc. is the management end of the Rillito Park Foundation, a nonprofit in charge of running the racetrack. Without a lease extension, racing would come to an end due to competing county interests, specifically the need for more soccer fields.
The county board of supervisors voted unanimously in January to extend RRI’s lease for four years, through 2021. “We have a new lease on life, pardon the pun,” Weiss said.
‘A WORKING LAB’
On top of entertainment and historical value, the racetrack’s day-to-day operations provide an educational aspect. The University of Arizona’s Racetrack Industry Program helps staff nearly all race-day positions.
“Almost 20 kids work here, we have made it a working lab,” Weiss said. “I have handicappers in the paddock for TV; they’re all students doing the morning line odds. You name it, and the students are involved.”
UA junior Amy Euler worked in admissions last year. The job includes putting together the day’s racing program and betting program. She also made sure everyone in the clubhouse had a wristband.
This year her title was “racing ambassador,” a role that doesn’t list precise duties. Euler said she found herself “basically helping out with groups a lot. Any area or group that needs extra help with something.”
That help usually meant explaining how to place bets, Euler said, but she performed more pressing chores as well.
“I’m helping the camera guy in the paddock not get trampled by horses,” she said.
Euler sees her time in the program as a stepping- stone to a career in the racing industry.
“I would love to be a trainer, more hands-on with the horses,” she said.
She also looks forward to shedding stereotypes still prevalent in the stables.
“There are not very many women in the industry, especially the equine side,” she said. “I don’t want to say it’s a man’s job but it’s definitely not traditional for women, and I kind of want to break down that barrier.”
Rillito Park Racetrack isn’t Churchill Downs. And that’s perfectly fine, Weiss says.
“Some of the big tracks around the country would kill to have the crowds and enthusiasm we have,” he said.
An upgraded simulcast system was part of this year’s improved experience. The system allows patrons to bet and watch races happening at tracks across the country, including Saratoga, Santa Ana and Gulfstream Park.
Simulcast helps Rillito as well.
“I’m selling our signal out,” Weiss said. “Rillito is all over the world. There are outlets in Austria, Germany and Hong Kong taking our signal.”
Weiss also added two Fridays to this season’s racing schedule, a spin on promotions he used to run at Beulah Park in Columbus, Ohio.
Rillito Park Racetrack happens to fall right in the middle of horseracing season, both geographically and calendar-wise.
“There is a need in the industry for a bridge track,” Weiss said. “The tracks out east are all done, the tracks in California are finishing up; and all of a sudden there is this big gap of no racing. You can take the signal and sell it.”
GO, BABY, GO
Weiss likes to tell a story about a highlevel racing executive who visited Rillito recently. The executive was usually uptight and very well-dressed.
While walking through the grandstands, Weiss ran into the man.
“I saw him standing in the corner, pair of shorts, T-shirt and a beer,” Weiss said. “And I go, ‘What are you doing here?’ He travels internationally, works with the tracks in France, and he goes: ‘I love this place, I just love the atmosphere.’”
Deidre Harris, a clubhouse server and a winter visitor by way of Montana, helped that atmosphere along each weekend. “I just love Tucson and this track,” she said.
After her husband retired from the National Park Service, the two decided to explore the country and head for more temperate climates. The only rule? “Just to do something different than we normally do,” Harris said.
“I mean, it really is probably the funniest job ever,” she said of her Rillito gig. “It’s fun to watch the people and then when the horses come around and half of them are cheering and half of them are like ohhhh.”
Weiss sees his job as a form of service.
“What we are doing, we are doing for the community,” he said. “You don’t get that too many places.”
RACING BY THE NUMBERS
Compiled by Eddie Celaya
Year the inaugural Belmont Stakes was run. Ruthless won.
Year the Preakness Stakes race was introduced. Survivor won.
Inaugural year of the Kentucky Derby. Aristides won.
Year Sir Barton won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, completing what became known as “the Triple Crown” of U.S. horse racing.
Number of fillies (female horses) that have won the Triple Crown.
Number of times Tiznow won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the only horse to do so.
Number of furloughs in a mile.
Number of Triple Crown-winning horses. They are: Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and American Pharoah.
Number of lengths Secretariat finished ahead of the competition at the Belmont Stakes in 1973. Nicknamed “Big Red,” Secretariat is the only non-human voted onto ESPN’s 100 Greatest Athletes of the Twentieth Century.
Number of races won by English jockey Sir Gordon Richards, a record.