Rillito Park Racetrack welcomes arrivals for winter meet

Rillito Park Racetrack welcomes arrivals for winter meet

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Horses have begun arriving and training for the winter meet at Pima County's Rillito Park Racetrack.

Dozens of horses were on the track when the training sessions began early Thursday morning, Feb. 2 and continued until 11 a.m.

The jockeys described the track conditions as "very good."

The meet begins Feb. 11 under a new, five-year extension that keeps Tucson horse racing at the park through the year 2021.

It also ends a years-long battle between horse racing and soccer enthusiasts for control of the park. The county announced in 2006 that it would tear down the horse racing grandstand to build an 18-field soccer facility.

Those plans were put on hold because of the Great Recession when the county announced it did not have the $1 million needed to demolish and remove the grandstand.

Horse racing would have continued at the Pima County Fairgrounds where the county was prepared to build a new facility.

But horse racing fans did not want to move from the centralized location on First Avenue near River Road.

Workers, owners and trainers excited about the future.

"This is my heart and soul because I've been here for 20 years," said Sandy Johnston, who rides a lead horse to insure the safety of the jockeys and race horses before a race. "I just love what I do because I can ride but I don't have to win."

For others, like owner David Kern, it means he can come home after a season of racing and have a place to feed, train and race his stable of 10 horses without worries.

"I've been coming here since I was 16," Kern said. "I used to ride with Bobby Baffert," who trained Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh in 2015.

But he feels not only close to home but feels the extension is good for his workers.

"I have five different people who work for me," he said. "They're people who normally wouldn't have anything to do."

For jockey Jesus "Tony" Osuna, who has been the top rider at Rillito Park in three of his five seasons there, it's a relief.

Even though he rides horses all across the country, there's no place like home.

"This is my life right here. This is where I got my first race," he said. "This is everything to me."

For the Rillito Park Foundation the 5-year extension also means it will receive a $1 million gift to fix up the aging facility but likely not enough to hurt its old-school charm.

"There is something about this little ol' track that people just love," General Manager Michael Weiss said.

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