Rillito opens its 75th racing season amid dreams for the future

Rillito opens its 75th racing season amid dreams for the future

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The Rillito Park Racetrack opens for its 75th season of horse racing Saturday, Feb. 10.

The bumpy road which had the track competing with soccer for the limited space, has been put to bed until 2021 giving it some breathing room.

Soccer will get a new tournament site, which is in the design phase, on Tucson's south side at Kino Sports Park.

New amenities, events and a better fan experience give track supporters hope the experience will be continued far into the future.

One of those experiences is the partnership with the University of Arizona's racing program. It's a one of a kind program where students get valuable hands on experience before they graduate.

All of the 2017 graduates were placed in jobs upon graduation in tracks across the country.

"This is home," said 22-year-old Skylar Straus, a Los Angeles native."The happiness I get, it's home."

Straus says her grandmother gave her a book on ponies when she was six years old and she's never waivered in her desire to work in the horse industry.

"My dad made me a deal," she said. "If I got straight A's for two years, I'd get a horse."

She got straight A's and her horse ten years ago.

"He's my best friend," she said.

On this Friday afternoon, while her friends were in class or enjoying the sunshine, she was cleaning stalls.

"It's a little bit therapeutic, shoveling s***, it doesn't sound great," she said laughing. "But it kind of feels good."

She'll be learning the ropes this year from Monica Ortega, a trainer from Sonoita in southern Arizona, who has been voted "Trainer of the Year" at Rillito for the past five years.

"I hope I can make it six," she said.

She has 30 to 35 horses getting ready for the six week season at Rillito Park.

"I'm going to run six Saturday and six Sunday," Ortega said. "That's the way it's going to be every weekend."

But adds "maybe I'll run every race."

While she trains horses which run at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, and several in New Mexico, Rillito has a special place.

"I come here every year, it's my favorite time," she said. "I wait for this, I love it."

The meet features quarter horse and thoroughbred racing. In fact, Rillito is the first quarter horse track in the world. So, there's a lot of history.

Michael Weiss, the track's general manager, said people return year after year because they love the heritage.

"To have a track last that long and the crowds and enthusiasm that we get here you know is not like any other," he said.

He said every weekend is a party.

"This place is fun, it's amazing the crowds that come and I'm expecting good weather and I just see a huge crowd," he said.

Meanwhile, the track faced some uncertainty in the past. Last year, the Pima County Board of Supervisors waited one month before opening day to renew its lease. An extension was approved until 2021.

The post time for the first race is scheduled for 1 p.m.

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