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Future is up in the air at Rillito Park

Posted at 11:27 PM, Dec 21, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-22 01:27:42-05

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Monday night a crowd gathered at Rillito Park to discuss the situation surrounding horse racing at Rillito Park.

Last week, the Pima County Board of Supervisors delayed a vote to approve a new contract that would let the Rillito Park Foundation manage the facilities for the next five years.

Earlier this year, their previous contract expired and they never renewed. That means if a contract is not approved soon, they may not be able to race at the beginning of the season which starts on January 30th.

Jaye Wells is the foundation's president. He says the proposed five-year deal has a multi-use vision that would let them manage all aspects of the park instead of just the racetrack.

"Part of our program is to manage the facility year round as opposed to just racing season," said Wells.

He added that the foundation is non-profit meaning all revenue from managing the park will go into improvements. They would manage year-round festivals, the farmers market, and maintain soccer fields.

District 1 Supervisor, Ally Miller, was at the meeting Monday night to explain the board's concerns to a group of those interested in keeping racing at Rillito.

"When it came on the board meeting on December 15th, I felt the contract was incomplete, there were a lot of unanswered questions," said Miller.

She had specific questions about capital improvements and obligations for Pima County taxpayers. Miller says she agreed to speak to Wells in the near future to answer some of those questions.

Miller also says the board has a major policy decision to make in terms of Rillito Park.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry released a memo Monday regarding the decision the board has to make. In the memo, he included a recommendation the board approved in 2006 that suggested moving racing out of Rillito Park to make room for more soccer fields. The suggestion included creating a race track in Marana.

Miller says the board can change that decision when they discuss the issue again, but in general they will need to decide whether or not Rillito Park will have both soccer and racing.

Part of the Rillito Park Foundation's new contract includes a second racing season that would take place in October. Wells says that will help bring in more money to the racetrack and improve racing competition in Pima County. He added that keeping the racetrack is important to Rillito Park because of its history.

Ted Schmidt, president of the Pima Count Junior Soccer League, says racing in the fall would compete with soccer.

"The fall is our busiest time of year for youth soccer," said Schmidt.

While there are races, Schmidt says they would not be allowed to use the four fields on the interior of the race track, nor the new fields closest to the racetrack on the outside.

"Because a ball might bounce onto the racetrack," said Schmidt. "So we've built these beautiful new fields but we can't use them on weekends when we have our games when there is going to be horse races."

Instead, they would need to use fields at Kino Sports Complex. Schmidt says the Rillito Park fields work better for parents and players, but they would move if need be. He added they are comfortable having the county manage the facilities and do not want to partner with the racing industry.

Right now the Rillito Park race track is in limbo, waiting for a decision from the board of supervisors. 

Should racing be delayed or moved away from Rillito Park, there will be consequences in the community.

Joann DiFilippo is a horse owner, she say it would affect her along with fellow trainers and owners.

"What it means for us as race horse owners and trainers is that you spend thousands of dollars getting your horses ready, whether it's the training, supplies, the feed, the vitamins, the vet bills, and when you're doing that somebody comes and pulls the rug out from under you and says there won't be racing this season," she said.

The track is also a major partners with the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program and uncertainty could have an affect on students. Director, Douglas Reed, wrote a memo to supervisors noting major changes in their curriculum to include the Rillito Park race track. Additionally, dozens of students get hands on experience at Rillito Park during racing season, helping them move into the racing industry after graduation.

What will the future hold for the racetrack? That is the question at hand.

Initially there was concern over timing for the next board meeting to discuss the issue. It was initially believed to be included in the February meeting, which means there could be a delay to the January 30th start to racing. Supervisor Miller says she expects the discussion to be included in the next Board of Supervisors meeting on January 5th, meaning an on-time start to racing at Rillito Park is still possible.