As racing season opens, two share their love for Rillito - The Explorer: El Sol

As racing season opens, two share their love for Rillito

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Posted: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 8:19 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

It was cold in the shade at Rillito Park on Monday morning. Yet there was a certain heat in the eyes and voices of two raceway veterans who watched the ponies run.

Dr. William Sanders, a Catalina veterinarian who's the track vet, remembers when the land around the First Avenue track was horse ground, stables and barns and breeding farms, when First Avenue had no bridge across the Rillito, and the horse properties went beyond Wetmore, and Limberlost and Campbell. The property that is 1600 E. River was a large equine facility. Today, it's apartments.

Rillito Racetrack is "the last vestige of what used to be Tucson," Doc says. "All that's left is this Rillito Racetrack."

Rillito's 2010 season opens this weekend

Rillito Park Raceway opens for its 2010 thoroughbred and quarterhorse racing seasons this Saturday, Jan. 16.

Racing is planned each Saturday and Sunday through Feb. 21, with the exception of Super Bowl Sunday.

Racing begins at 1 p.m. Admission is $3 for general admission, and $5 for the clubhouse. Parking is free.

The track is located at First Avenue and River Road.

Bill Matthews was born in 1943, "the same year this track was built here." He's a horseman, and leads the effort to save Rillito Racetrack as president of Historic Rillito Racetrack Inc.

"All we're about is to save the track," said Matthews, himself a Catalina resident.

Rillito Racetrack needs to be saved because it sits on what is now-valuable property surrounded by the city of Tucson, and it has reached "the end of its useful life," according to information in a Pima County Bond Advisory Committee document.

There is a proposal before the committee to seek funds for conversion of the racetrack into a regional soccer tournament complex. There is also a proposal to build a new horse-racing facility at the Pima County Fairgrounds.

Sanders and Matthews have a different, longer perspective of Rillito Racetrack, which opens for the 2010 season this Saturday.

"They want to tear this grandstand down," Doc says. "They say it's not safe." That belief is, Doc believes, a bunch of … well, horse manure. "It's ridiculous. This could be a multi-use facility," with the grandstand busy and events unfolding beyond the winter and spring racing season.

"If I owned this piece of property, I guarantee you, there'd be something going on 365 days a year," Matthews said. "I'd develop this into a year-round venue. You have to take it out of the hands of Pima County, you have to put it in the hands of private people. Leave it as a race track," and add to the activities. "There are a lot of things that could be done." He went to a concert at Rillito last year. "If you put it into some enterprising person, the county would make more money, too."

"This facility is perfectly adequate," Doc says. "It's here, it's been serving its purpose, for many, many years."

"It doesn't make sense to tear down a $30 million facility, and not get the attendance" at a new venue, Matthews said. "We had 68,000 people here last year," including 9,000 on the season's last day. And, he suggests, "nothing has succeeded in anything" at the fairgrounds.

In 1953, when William Sanders was a student at the University of Arizona, he'd come out to watch them run. His family was in the race horse business.

"I love horses," he said. "I like to watch horses compete. They're athletes. It's a beautiful sport."

"I raise race horses," Matthews said. He's got 26 head of horses in Catalina, and "Doc Sanders is my vet." He plans to run two of the horses this spring. "I have a special feeling for it," Matthews said. "It's been a part of my life all of my life."

The organization to save Rillito Racetrack is two years old. It's led by Matthews, Kurt Luscombe and former county supervisor Ed Moore.

"We've been trying to save the track since 1982," when county government first began to talk about another use for the ground. "They figured they could sell it off, and get the money and run," Matthews said.

Matthews has nothing against soccer; his grandson was a promising young player. Doc says there are "plenty of facilities around" for soccer.

"(County Administrator Chuck) Huckelberry has said they would not tear this down until they built another equal facility," Matthews said. "The county doesn't have any money. There's vacant land that could be used" for soccer fields. In fact, there are seven soccer fields at Rillito right now, cared for by the county.

Doc points to a space beyond the track. "They tore down the stables, and left it flat, because there's no money for soccer fields," he says.

Both men agree the races are great. "There are a lot of families out here," Doc says.

"Everyone loves to come here, they have such a good time," Matthews said. "It's the same thing as Hollywood Park, or Santa Anita, except it's right here in Tucson. It's so much fun, and so inexpensive."

Those who race are "in it for the love of the game, because there's no money in it," Matthews said. "I probably lose $50,000 a year. I get to get up at 4:30 every morning, I raise them myself." He's the president of Bonita Steel Builders, and works a long day, then goes home to "spend the night taking care of my horses. It's a lot of work and expense, feed stores and tack stores, buying alfalfa, grass, grain, all of the things that keep horses moving. I love it."

"Let's keep it going," Doc says. "I'll be doing it as long as I can keep doing it."

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