Rillito Racing Track History
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Rillito Racing Track History

September 5, 2019


>>>QUARTER HORSE RACING RETURNED THIS MONTH TO THE RACETRACK FOR ITS 75th YEAR. THE SPORT’S ORIGINS IN TUCSON DATE TO BEFORE WORLD WAR II AND, AS AS REPORT, FOR MUCH OF THE TIME, A BATTLE HAS ENSUED OVER THE TRACK AND THE LAND IT’S BUILT ON. I BET YOU PASSED THIS HORSE STABLE AND HOUSE ALONG RIVER ROAD HUNDREDS OF TIMES AND NEVER NOTICED IT OBSCURED BEHIND THE TREES AND A LARGE WALL.>>THE STALLS ARE JUST SUPER –>>Reporter: WE NOW LEAVE 2018 AND STEP BACK 80 YEARS TO 1938. THIS IS THE STABLE THAT LAUNCHED THE QUARTER HORSE RACES IN TUCSON.>>WITHIN THREE YEARS, EVERY WORLD CHAMPION CAME FROM THIS STABLE.>>I’M JAY WELLS, I’M PRESIDENT OF THE PARK FOUNDATION, CHAIRMAN OF RACING INC. AND CHAIRMAN OF THE FARMER’S MARKET.>>Reporter: WE’LL GO BACK TO 1838 WITH JAY IN A MOMENT. FIRST, IT’S IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND THAT TODAY WELLS HEADS UP THE NONPROFIT THAT HELPS PIMA COUNTY MANAGE THE 78 ACRES OF THE PARK AT RIVER AND FIRST AVENUE. FOR ALMOST FIVE DECADES, TUCSON’S PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE HAVE BEEN IN LOCKED COMBAT OVER THIS PARK. HORSE RACING WAS FIRST. THEN CAME THE SOCCER FIELD. THEN THE FARMER’S MARKET. ALL BATTLING FOR A PIECE OF THE PARK. AND FOR NEARLY 80 YEARS, THE LITTLE STABLE AND ITS POWERFUL HISTORY HAVE SAT SILENT, FROZEN IN TIME. NOW BACK TO THE 1930s WITH JAY WELLS.>>ALL OF THE IRON WORK, THESE DOORS, HAVE GONE INTO THE STABLE AREA, ALL OF THE ENTRANCE DOORS AND THE HOUSE ET CETERA WERE DONE IN MEXICO AND BOUGHT UP. THESE ADOBES CAME FROM THAT AREA. YOU IMAGINE BACK IN THE ’30s HAULING ALL THAT MATERIAL UP HERE.>>THE HOME AND THE STABLES BELONG TO THE JELPS FAMILY AND WERE FINISHED IN 1940. BY 1942, JELPS AND SEVERAL PARTNERS WERE WELL ESTABLISHED AS QUARTER HORSE STUD BREEDERS. THEY DECIDED TO PLOW THROUGH CACTUS AND DESERT LANDSCAPE TO BUILD A RACETRACK IN THE BACKYARD. TODAY’S TRACK IS JUST 50 YARDS FROM THE STILL STANDING JELPS HOME. IN THE 1950s, THE JELPS HACIENDA AND STABLES WERE SOLD TO THE SHOEMAKERS. MARY SHOEMAKER WOULD LIVE IN IT UNTIL HER DEATH IN 2007. NOW IN THE 1980s, A BATTLE BROKE OUT OVER THE PARK. TUCSON WAS GROWING. SOME WANTED TO CLOSE THE RACETRACK, THEN CONSIDERED BY MANY AN EYESORE. DEVELOPERS WANTED TO BUY THE LAND. AND OTHERS WANTED TO TAKE DOWN EVERYTHING AND PUT IN PARKS INSTEAD. PIMA COUNTY CLOSED IT AND PUT IT UP FOR SALE. IN 1982, WE REPORTED ON THE STORY.>>THE STARTING GATE WILL NOT OPEN AND THE THOROUGHBREDS WILL NOT BE RACING DOWN THIS TRACK THIS SEASON. THE PIMA COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS TODAY MADE IT CLEAR RIOTO DOWNS IS A MONEY LOSER AND THEY WANT TO GET RID OF IT.>>Reporter: IN THE 1980s, THE LAND ALONE WAS WORTH AROUND $6 MILLION. BUT EARNINGS FROM THE TRACK WERE ONLY AROUND $13,000. SOUTHERN ARIZONA’S EQUINE COMMUNITY WOULD NOT GO QUIETLY INTO THE NIGHT. THEY MAINTAINED YOU CAN’T PUT A DOLLAR SIGN ON HISTORY, CULTURE AND TRADITION. SUPPORTERS OF RIOTO STORMED THE SUPERVISOR MEETINGS, BY FOOT AND BY HOOF.>>THEY’VE NOT ANSWERED ANY OF OUR QUESTIONS. THEY HAVE NOT MADE CLEAR ANY OF THEIR REASONS FOR STALLING THIS PROPERTY, WHICH WAS DONATED TO THEM TO BEGIN WITH.>>Reporter: PUBLIC OUTRAGE RULED THE DAY. THE PARK WAS CLOSED BUT NOT SOLD. IT REOPENED A FEW YEARS LATER AND HOBBLED ALONG INTO THE 1990s. THIS TIME IT WAS THE SOCCER COMMUNITY THAT WANTED THE RACETRACK AND THE SURROUNDING ACREAGE.>>MY NAME IS TED SCHMIDT AND I’M PRESIDENT OF THE JUNIOR SOCCER LEAGUE AND THE PRESIDENT TUCSON SOCCER ACADEMY.>>Reporter: MORE KIDS THEN AND EVEN TODAY ARE SIGNING UP TO PLAY SOCCER THAN BASKETBALL, FOOTBALL AND BASEBALL COMBINED.>>IT’S HUGE. IT’S THE FASTEST GROWING SPORT IN AMERICA AND PARTICULARLY HERE IN SOUTHERN ARIZONA.>>Reporter: SCHMIDT AND HIS ALLIES WOULD PROVE AN EVEN GREATER ADVERSARY THAN DEVELOPERS. AND MEMBERS OF THE PIMA COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS WERE LISTENING TO BOTH SIDES. COUNTY ADMINISTRATOR CHUCK HUCKLEBERRY SAID THE COUNTY WAS BEING ASKED TO CHOOSE, THE PAST OVER THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE.>>THE HISTORY IS ONE THAT IS DIFFERENT TODAY THAN THE HISTORY OF WHEN IT WAS FIRST BUILT. WHEN IT WAS FIRST BUILT IN THE 1940s THIS WAS OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE COUNTRY. THERE WERE NO HOUSES AROUND IT. THERE WAS NO COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENT. AND SO THE COMMUNITY HAS EVOLVED OVER TIME AND ALMOST ENVELOPED IT. YOUTH SPORTS GROUP HAS NOTHING AGAINST HORSE RACING. IT’S JUST, YOU KNOW, LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. WHEN THIS HORSE TRACK WAS BUILT, THERE WERE 27,000 PEOPLE LIVING IN TUCSON AND IT WAS AT THE END OF A DIRT ROAD. IF WE WERE GOING TO BUILD A RACETRACK TODAY, WOULD WE PUT IT HERE?>>Reporter: ENTER JAY WELLS AGAIN. HE DISCOVERED THERE WERE MORE THAN TWO SIDES. THERE WAS A THIRD. AND THAT THIRD VOICE HAD BEEN SILENT FOR DECADES. REMEMBER THE JELPS HOUSE AND STABLE? NOT A DOORKNOB, NOT A BEAM, NOT A BRICK HAD BEEN TOUCHED ALL THESE YEARS. IT HAD BEEN PRESERVED IN ALMOST THE SAME CONDITION IT WAS BACK IN THE 1940s.>>WHEN I DISCOVERED THE JELPS HOUSE ON THE PROPERTY, I SAW THAT AS THE THIRD LEG OF A STOOL, MEANING THERE WAS ANOTHER ENTITY TO BRING IN THE ARTS AND CULTURE AND HISTORY.>>Reporter: WELLS IS QUICK TO MENTION THERE IS NOW A FOURTH ENTITY THAT HAS COME TO PLAY AT THE PARK, THE UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA’S RACETRACK INDUSTRY PROGRAM.>>ONE I DON’T THINK MANY PEOPLE UNDERSTAND IT, U OF A HAS THE PREMIER PROGRAM IN THE WORLD, AND TRAINERS SUCH AS BOB BAFFERT, TED PLETCHER AND THE LATEST STA TASTE TISTIC IS 80% TRACKS IN THE WORLD HAVE U OF A ALUM ON THEIR STAFF. WE RAISED A LITTLE OVER $800,000, REBUILT THE TRACK, RESTORED THE HOUSE, ALMOST FINISHING TOUCHES OF CONVERTING THE STABLE TO THE HORSE RACING TEAR HERITAGE MUSEUM. THE ENTIRE PARK, INCLUDING THE JELPS PROPERTY, IS NOW LISTED ON THE NATIONAL REGISTER.>>Reporter: THAT MEANS AN ABILITY TO RAISE MORE FUNDS TO PRESERVE THE ENTIRE 78 ACRE PARK.>>WE THINK IT’S A WIN-WIN-WIN FOR EVERYBODY CONCERNED.>>Reporter: WELLS SAYS IT’S ALMOST AS IF THE PAST, THAT LITTLE STABLE AND HOUSE LONG FORGOTTEN BY MANY, HAS STRETCHED OUT A HAND TO HELP MAINTAIN THE PRESENT AND BUILD THE FUTURE.

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