Each winter, the snowbirds converge upon Tucson, Arizona, an oasis in the Sonoran desert. The golf courses are busy and hikers criss-cross the rugged mountain trails that surround the city. In the shadow of the Catalina Mountains sits a tiny, five-eighths-mile race track with a rich history and a passionate fan base that fills the cramped grandstand to the rafters this time of year - Rillito Park. I had the privilege of attending Rillito regularly over the past 2 years as a student at the University of Arizona.
Rillito Park is the place where American Quarter Horse racing was perfected - the first starting gate chute was employed there, as well as the earliest use of photo-electric timers. Such QH legends as Shue Fly, Joe Reed II and Hard Twist dashed down the desert dirt strip. Rillito Park is also where, on Jan. 28, 1979, trainer Bob Baffert saddled Flipper Star, his very first Thoroughbred winner.
In the last decade, Rillito has survived cutbacks in racing dates, declines in handle, the sale of its property and resulting budget cuts by the county, disagreements among leadership and challenges from the state racing commission. But through it all, the bullring has managed to come out swinging, its hangar-shaped grandstand full, its mutuel windows lined with customers, and a full field in every race.
Rillito has also been an on-the-job-training lab for students of the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program (RTIP). My classmates worked as racing officials and chart callers, or on the backside as grooms and exercise riders for local trainers. Alumni of the program would converge upon Rillito for the Pete Selin Happy Minute Stakes, a tribute to a legendary fan and friend of horse racing who was also an alumn of the RTIP.
In 2012, Rillito will celebrate its 70th season with a 9-weekend meet that promises to be one of its best ever. Opening day is always a treat - it is like a reunion as friends old and new meet up again to watch the horses run. It is crucial to get there early for a good spot at the paddock, because by the time the horses file in for the first race, every inch of the fence is filled and the crowd is 5-deep in places. Laughter and critical equine analysis in both Spanish and English echo off the rafters in the grandstand, and over in the clubhouse, the more advanced handicappers discuss their picks around reserved tables that overlook the finish line.
Of course, the best spot is on the rail. The track is only wide enough for an 8-horse starting gate, and it takes every inch of the track to hold that gate. When the horses spring out with the bell, you can feel the earth tremble, and sometimes a shower of dirt will rain on the railbirds. The tight turns mean a careless jockey could go literally spinning out of them. The crowd goes wild in the stretch drive as desperate closers try to gain on pacesetters - speed is king at this track.
Rillito can also be quite peculiar - the dirt surface is ancient, and any rain or wind conditions will change it dramatically. Sometimes the horses are ancient, 7- or 8-years old and older with an affinity for Rillito. It's ok in many cases if the horse's last start was in February the previous year: he has simply been waiting for Rillito to come around again. The tote board can be a lesson in pari-mutuels. The track is too small for any simulcasting these days, so all of the action is on-track. A single high-roller with a $100 bet can make a longshot a short-priced favorite. And then there are the tall jockeys...
I will miss going to Rillito this season. I have graduated from UA and gone off to bigger adventures at bigger tracks. But no matter where I go, the fun and excitement of Rillito will be hard to beat.
Rillito Park opens Jan. 28 and races weekends only until March 25, except for Super Bowl weekend, Feb. 4.
-- Story & Photos by Candice Curtis