RTIP and Rillito Park: Partnering for Racing's Future

Events / Travel

Historic Rillito Park features the Santa Catalina Mountains as a backdrop. (Photo courtesy of Rillito Park, all other photos courtesy of Alexa Ravit)

4502 N. First Ave. is a long way from home for me, and by home, I mean Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. However, starting this weekend and continuing every weekend through March 20, 4502 N. First Ave., the location of Rillito Park, will be my racing home. Located in Tucson, Ariz., Rillito Park has been around since 1943. 

Although Rillito lacks the name recognition of Saratoga or Del Mar, it has made significant contributions to Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing in its long history. For example, Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert scored his first win in a Thoroughbred race at Rillito. In addition, Rillito was the first track to use a photo-finish camera, an invention that we take for granted today. Furthermore, Rillito was the first track to offer a three-eighths of a mile straightaway for Quarter Horses, a layout that became known as the chute system and is now common at Quarter Horse tracks across the country.


Despite Rillito’s contributions to the development of horse racing, the track has faced obstacles throughout its history. The track was closed for much of the 1980s due to a lack of funds, but its most recent battle has been with local soccer interests. In 2011, the Rillito Park foundation was created to facilitate positive relations among the various parties with interest in the Rillito land. As recently as last month, there were questions over whether or not the 2016 race meet would take place, for the Pima County Board of Supervisors had delayed a vote for a long-term contract extension to keep horse racing at Rillito. Fortunately, a two-year lease was approved to maintain racing for the near future.


Rillito has seen significant improvements under the leadership of Mike Weiss, a veteran of the horse racing industry who was brought in as general manager for the 2015 race meet. Weiss, a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program (RTIP), has worked in roles ranging from groom to general manager at racetracks including Beulah Park, Hialeah Park, Monmouth Park, and ThistleDown Racino. Among the changes seen since his arrival include $100,000 in improvements to the dirt racing surface and a multitude of physical upgrades to the grandstand and clubhouse.


Another recent change to Rillito has been a new presence in the workforce. Rillito has teamed up with RTIP to offer the program’s students the opportunity to gain real-world experience in working at a racetrack in a variety of roles ranging from admissions to operation of the photo-finish camera to hosting a handicapping seminar and setting morning-line odds. I will be controlling Rillito’s social media presence and working in communications (my shameless plug is at the end of the blog!). 

Joseph Longo, a first-year graduate student, is using his prior work experience in public and private finance management roles to act as the chief financial officer for Rillito. On the importance of RTIP’s collaboration with the track, Longo said, “Rillito affords students here a unique opportunity to get real industry experience on a smaller scale. Due to the size of the operation, students can work on a number of track initiatives and functions, allowing them to determine what career path in racing they might choose down the road.”


Once we all work a weekend at Rillito, I plan to document the experience for a future blog. To say that I am excited for this race meet is a massive understatement. I have worked in communications for The Jockey Club and with Thoroughbreds in Kentucky, but I have never been employed at a racetrack. I cannot wait to be a part of a team tasked with bringing the sport that I love to the people of Tucson, and I am equally thrilled to be able to share the atmosphere of Rillito with people around the country through social media. Rillito may not have the glamour of Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day, but I have been told that its enthusiastic crowds rival the energy felt at any major track, and I look forward to being a part of it.

For more information about Rillito’s 2016 race meet, please visit the track website. Please like our Facebook page Rillito Park Race Track 2016, follow our Twitter account @RillitoPark, our Instagram account @RillitoParkRacing, and “friend” our Snapchat account rillitopark.


For more information about the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program, visit the program’s website at www.ua-rtip.org and visit its Facebook, Twitter (@UA_RTIP), and Instagram (@UA_RTIP) pages. You can also contact the program’s director Doug Reed at dreed@ag.arizona.edu and 520-621-5660.

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