June 7, 2006 - Hanging by its guts to its historic midtown location, Rillito Racetrack might have an out.

In recent years, pressure has come from all corners of the region's athletic contingent to turn the 88-acre track site into sports fields. Last September, Pima County formed a 14-member advisory committee to consider the racetrack's options.

In January, the group met for the first time. In April, Marana got involved.

Consisting of representatives from soccer and horse racing organizations, the county, the city of Tucson and the racetrack, the committee listened as Marana officials made their pitch at an April 25 meeting.

Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat and recently-named Parks and Recreation Director Tom Ellis told the committee why Marana would make a great location for a new Rillito Racetrack.

The town wants to build a long-discussed western events center. Officials have drawn conceptual plans for more than a dozen sports fields and a rodeo arena a quarter-mile east of the Marana Regional Airport on Avra Valley Road.

The town would build the regional park on 500 acres of federal land. The Rillito Racetrack could move to the Bureau of Reclamation site, too, Marana officials suggested.

But last month, they discovered that the government forbids gambling on BOR lands. So the town turned its attention to 100 acres of state land, adjacent to the federal lands and planned regional park site. The 100 acres should go to auction within a year, Marana Town Manager Mike Reuwsaat said.

If Marana can outbid others for the state land, the racetrack could go there, he said.

The Rillito Racetrack can remain at its First Avenue location until 2010, but it looks grim beyond that, said Vice Chair of the Pima County Horsemen's Association Patti Shirley, a member of the Rillito Park advisory committee.

"We're comfortable that by 2010, we'll be kicked out of there," Shirley said.

Developers have expressed interest in the property, and soccer enthusiasts want more fields for practices and tournaments. Rillito Park already has seven fields. County officials have entertained putting even more fields on the racetrack site.

The region needs more soccer fields, former county supervisor Ed Moore said. In addition to the racetrack site, the county has considered putting more playing fields at three other sites, including more than 300 acres immediately available west of Interstate 10 and south of Ruthrauff Road.

"The horse industry does not want more soccer fields," said Moore, also on the advisory committee. "But soccer moms are putting the pressure on, and I don't blame them."

In 1984, Moore helped save the deteriorating racetrack from development with a $400,000 initiative. He even barricaded himself inside the racetrack to preserve it before citizens voted on the measure, which guaranteed racing at the track for 25 more years.

The track almost became part of Tucson Mall, Moore said.

Now, he "absolutely supports another location. I hate to lose the history, but from a practical standpoint, Marana is the only option."

The first American quarter-horse races took place at Rillito, also the first track to use photo-finish. The National Registry of Historic Places lists Rillito's original track, built in 1942.

Today, the track hosts quarter-horse, thoroughbred and occasionally Arabian horse races. Racing season begins in January and runs through March.

Two shorter "chutes" supplement the main track, five-eights of a mile long.

Pima County has considered moving the facility to the Houghton Road fairgrounds on the Southeast side of the city. The county then could put more soccer fields on the track site or even sell it, officials suggested.

County Parks and Recreation Director Rafael Payan on April 25 encouraged the advisory committee to form a partnership with Marana, in hopes of relocating the track to the town. Moving the track to Marana would bring it closer to the interstate, an added bonus, he said, according to the meeting minutes.

Payan failed to return several calls from the EXPLORER for this story.

"The handwriting is on the wall," Shirley said. "The county's been trying to kick us out of there for forever and a day."

The Rillito Racetrack in recent years faced maintenance problems galore, with dangerous grandstands, electrical and plumbing and inadequate handicap access. The county estimated the cost of fixing the grandstands at $10 million to $12 million.

Buildings on the property need "a lot of renovation," Shirley said.

"The racetrack's in poor shape," Reuwsaat said. Building a new facility in Marana "seemed to make sense, because we could use shared resources."

The racetrack and western events center could use the same horse stalls and parking, he said.

With its planned regional park, Marana wants to attract national softball, baseball and soccer tournaments. The park could become the future site of the town's Fourth of July celebration.

The federal government could foot half the bill for the 500-acre park, estimated three years ago at $23 million. The potential racetrack site would not get federal funding.

The county it seems has agreed to work with Marana to move the racetrack to the town. However, the advisory committee, including members of the horse racing community, has yet to reach a unanimous decision.

It appears that vote will come, though.

"If we move, it looks like (Marana's) the place," Rillito Racetrack Director of Racing Pat White said. "It's too soon to say really what's going to happen, but Marana's the only option."

Marana had talked with the city of Tucson about trading water rights to use farmland owned by the city for its western events center. Officials determined that the 160-acre site would prove too small for Marana's plans, which in recent months has included a potential 5,000-seat arena and two smaller arenas.

The town will keep its eye on the Tucson property, in case the planned park near the airport fails, Reuwsaat said.

The town would put as many as 18 sports fields on the north side of Avra Valley Road. South of the road, the town would build the rodeo arena and equestrian facilities, according to conceptual drawings.

County and town officials want to sharpen plans for the track's potential relocation in time for a 2008 bond issue. First, everyone needs to get on board.

"Everybody involved wants Rillito Park for a different use," Shirley said. "If we can agree to move to Marana, it makes things easier. If we have to move, there's no better place. But a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

Officials planned a private meeting to discuss the Rillito Racetrack next on June 9. County parks and recreations officials have asked to meet with certain committee members involved in the horse industry.

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