FLASHBACK – HORSE RACING TALES FROM 2001

These articles appeared in the Arizona Daily Star.

Feb. 2, 2001
Local horse track set to race again week
By Ed Odeven

Rillito Park was once at the forefront of the horse racing Industry, a burgeoning innovator in racing technology.

After opening in 1943, the track quickly emerged as a leader in quarter horse racing.

It became the first to devise and utilize the photo finish technology that is now standard in the Industry.

Nowadays, it’s an annual struggle for Rillito Park to stay afloat financially. The non-profit Pima County Horsemen’s Association, which operates Rillito Park on a shoestring budget, relies on a slew of volunteers to keep it going.

The 2001 edition of Rillito racing season begins tomorrow and runs through March. Racing will take place every Saturday and Sunday during that span.

Decades ago the racing season lasted for several months.  But the PCHA has shortened it due to limited funds, marketing director Jim Collins said.

“This place was jumping 20 years ago,” he recalls. “Now, we scrape together (funds) to survive.”

Many of the 200 to 300 horses expected to compete at Rillito also race throughout Arizona, including less-heralded horses from Turf Paradise in Phoenix.

Local jockey Joe Badilla Jr., the first to earn more than $3 million in a season, began his career racing at places like Rillito.

“I like to run there, it’s home,” Badilla said. “There are big crowds, but it’s not just enough money. Jockeys there make $100 to $200 a race; somewhere else it’s $400 to $500 per race.”

Collins and the PCHA strive to educate the public that a race track exists in Tucson.

“People who move here from the East and Midwest who went to many races back home don’t realize we have a race track in town,” Collins said.

While racing doesn’t last year-round in Tucson, the sport has a traditional following in smaller towns throughout the state.

After Rillito Park closes down in March, the racing circuit continues, stopping off in Duncan, Kingman, Safford and Sonoita in the spring, to Prescott Downs in the summer and in St Johns and Globe in the fall,

“It’s really a fun, little circuit in all these little towns,” Collins said. “I go to every one of them. I support ’em with my wallet.”

***
Feb. 4, 2001
Rillito’s opening day full of mirth, memories
By Ed Odeven

It was a splendid afternoon for racing.

With chilly winter temperatures nowhere in sight, an estimated 3,000 fans flocked to Rillito Park for the premier of the 2001 horse racing season in Tucson.

The buildup between races provided an animated mix of lively discussions, playful reminiscing and banter. Enthusiastic fans observed the horses trotting from the paddock to the track between races, jotted down notes and hollered out predictions after getting a close-up view of the various contestants and jockeys.

Old-timers conversed about their fond memories of past races. Fathers patiently dissected the nuances of how the parimutuel betting system works to their curious children.

Eyes darted to the left as horses jumped out of the gate to start each race.

While some folks cheered for the front- season racing schedule. Normally, Wippert competes in Montana in the summer and St. Johns and Globe in the fall.

According to Wippert, anxiety is a common theme among jockeys in a season-opening week.

“You have all these expectations. You hope to finish out front and don’t get hurt,” Wippert said. “After the first race you pretty much settle into it It’s like in baseball, after the first at-bat you’re all right”

Veteran trainer Santiago Lowe, who had three horses compete yesterday, said poor weather affects how he performs his job.

“It takes a lot of work, especially when it’s raining because the track gets deserted for three to four days,” Lowe said. “You have to go get a jockey and you don’t know where they’ve been for two, three or four days.”

Racing continues tomorrow and each Saturday and Sunday until March 11. Post time is 1 p.m. runners,

Floyd Campbell riding Cool Sage earned a plethora of claps and shouts after blitzing from worst to first in the second half of the afternoon’s sixth race.

Bobby Johnston, a veteran of a half-century in the racing business, is still thrilled to be part of opening day.

“Opening day is really a lot of fun,” said Johnston, who also runs a ranch in Crane, Texas. “There are good crowds every year.”

Although he has many fond memories of Rillito, a painful one sticks out in his mind. In February 1962, Johnston broke his neck after being thrown from his nerve-stricken horse.

“An automatic sprinkler came on and scared my 2-year-old horse,” said Johnston, a clerk of scales who runs a backup stopwatch for each race in case the electrical watches go kaput.

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