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Rillito Park's last stand

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

After many decades of hosting horse racing, the Rillito Park Race Track is being prepped for what appears to be its final season.

Pima County has scheduled demolition of the grandstand and stables for April, after the racing season ends on March 30.

There has been an ongoing battle between the horse racing community and the county dating back to 1984.

The bulldozers were ready to tear down the grandstand and flatten the stables until Supervisor Ed Moore stepped forward, put it to a voter referendum and the voters said no.

"Times have changed and Tucson has become more urban," says Patti Shirley a former trainer and head of the Equine Encore Foundation. "Horse racing is not as popular as it once was here."

Still she says it "outdraws every other Pima County attraction."

But she believes this will be the last season for racing at Rillito Downs.

"When Rillito closes, it's the death knell for horse racing in Southern Arizona and I definitely think it's going to happen after this year," she says.

The county has plans to turn the 88 acre Rillito Park into a tournament ready soccer facility with 18 fields.

A downturn in the economy put those plans on hold in 2009 and horse racing was given a five year reprieve.

The five years are up after the season ends March 30.

"The scheduled improvements that will begin after this year's racing season will continue to remove dilapidated horse barns in favor of additional soccer fields and public park amenities," County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says in a memo sent to the county board.

Shirley takes that to mean just about everything.

"The county has told us we don't want you to leave but we're tearing down the barns, we're tearing down the grandstand, we're looking at tearing down the clubhouse and we're going to use half your parking lot for something else," Shirley says.

She says the county told her "the race track is okay, you can still have racing."

But she says that's impossible without the amenities.

"We're not giving up" she says. But she's resigned.

"The whole 88 acres is historic. We thought that would save us," says. "But the truth is, Pima County owns the property and the owner can do what ever they want." 

Shirley says the county had dangled a $6 million facility at the Pima County Fairgrounds as a carrot to get them to move.

"With the economy the way it is, that's not going to happen," she says.

Besides she adds, the cost to replicate the facilities at Rillito would cost from $16 to $19 million.

Moving the track so far away from town will hurt attendance and she believes it won't be long before "nobody knows we have racing here."

There are still efforts to save it.

Moore still fights the battle.

He sent a letter to the state saying the county has no legal right to use bond money to replace the track and grandstand.

The state auditor general disagreed.

If there are other battles, time is running out.

The track has a storied history dating back to 1953, when the oval track was installed for thoroughbred racing.

Up until then, it was one of the premier quarter horse race tracks in the county.

Rillito Downs also helped pioneer the use of the photo finish camera.

It seems the battles between the county and the racing community have come to a finish as well.

But no photo is needed for this race.

The racing season begins Feb. 8 and runs through March 30.

"We're not going to market this as the final season," Shirley says. "But if someone asks, I'll tell them I think it is."

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