Volunteers work to return horse racing to Rillito Downs

Volunteers work to return horse racing to Rillito Downs

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Less than a year after talks of ending the races at Rillito Downs, promotional flyers for the new season read "The track is back" and "La pista está lista."

The Rillito Park Foundation signed a three-year lease for property, according to foundation president Jaye Wells. He joined contractors and volunteers Saturday morning to work on renovating the historic facility.

"When folks get together and roll their sleeves up, it makes a world of difference," he said.

Wells and the rest of the team have less than two months before opening day at the track on February 7. Groups split up Saturday to cover different parts of the park. Amelia Hauschild joined her mother and grandmother to help paint the jockeys' room, where she hopes to work one day. Hauschild is training to be a jockey.

"It's a community effort and personally, I grew up with the track so this is like my second home," she said.

When she heard about last year's season possibly being the last, Hauschild said she couldn't help but worry. When she learned about the new idea of the park, she knew it was time to volunteer.

"I've been going to the track since I was really young," she said. "The community here is just amazing."

The Blazing Caballos 4H group is a part of that community as well. Members can now ride some of the horses rescued from the track, so they showed up Saturday ready to paint.

"It's work but it's not hard work because it's with your friends and it's fun," said Zoe Flynn. "We're helping the community so it's good."

More people have answered Wells' call for help and investors. Tucson's own El Charro restaurant will take over the concession area at the track. The University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Program will have an office at the park as well.

Wells said the county will move forward with replacing the old barns with new soccer fields, but he said it's a welcome change to the park. The barns will be relocated and rebuilt on the other side of the track, closer to the farmers' market. With the new fields, new farmers' market and renovated track area, Wells said the park appeals to more people.

"The race track is sort of the hub of the whole park," he said. "It's the history and it's also the future. It can literally be a premier regional park, not just in Southern Arizona, but be an example nationwide."

The county can stop the foundation's work after just one year into the three-year lease, according to Wells. He said there's also a concern about a possible bond that would bring even more soccer fields to the park, but the foundation is moving forward with its plan to provide a sustainable track and surrounding park to Southern Arizona.

Copyright 2014 Tucson News Now. All rights reserved.