Victory at the Races: Tucson’s Rillito Racetrack

A historic racetrack prepares for a bright future.

Just north of the Rillito River on First Avenue sits a significant piece of horse racing history. Rillito Park Racetrack, first opened in 1943, is considered the pioneering track of quarter horse racing and is also the site of the first photo finish. Its name—Rillito Race Track at the time—was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and, today, the location continues to attract nearly 5,000 spectators to each event during its winter season.

“We are an authentic Western cowboy track,” said Jaye Wells, president of the Rillito Park Foundation. “It’s one of Tucson’s treasures, just like the rodeo.”

But racing nearly ended at the track when the county considered plans to demolish the grandstand and convert the property into 16 soccer fields. The nonprofit Rillito Park Foundation, formed in 2011, swooped in to help create a space that united both the racetrack and soccer fields. Then in 2015, the foundation hired general manger Michael Weiss, a man with a reputation for turning underperforming tracks into profitable enterprises.

Renovations were needed and $2.5 million was allocated to upgrading the facility, which included adding flat-screen monitors, establishing broadcasting capabilities and making improvements to the track surface. The simulcast racing provides the ability to bet on races at other tracks, and Rillito Park is now able to broadcast its signal so that spectators around the world can watch and bet on Rillito’s races as well.

Rillito Racetrack

Furthermore, a partnership was established with University of Arizona’s race track industry program—rated the best in the country—providing students with hands-on experience working at the track.

Wells said there are two components that set Rillito Park apart from other small tracks: its recognized historic status and its relationship with the university. “I call it the two bookends. One is the history, one is the future, and that’s what gives us a leg up against all the other small tracks,” he explained. 

“It is a very unique culture,” said photographer Andrew Brown, who began attending races at the track about six years ago. “It’s obviously not the Kentucky Derby, but people there are every bit as proud and enjoy themselves.”

Rillito Park Racetrack remains one of the country’s most exciting, family-friendly venues for horse racing. And Weiss said that for its size, it can generate an energy level on race day comparable to a 100,000-person crowd at Belmont Park.

“For a small track, for an old track, I’ve never seen anything like that crowd,” said Weiss. “When those horses come down the stretch, everybody is into it, everybody is screaming. It’s a jam-packed grandstand that’s just lit up with energy.” 

Rillito Racetrack

Eric Swedlund
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