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Street Smarts: Why Tucson’s Rillito Racetrack is a National Historic Site | Story

David Leighton for the Arizona Daily Star

When Tucson’s only horse racing track closed in 1943, breeder and racer J. Rukin Jelks set off in search of a new site.

After a few months of research, Jelks came up with his personal practice track, located just south of his ranch and stables on River Road near First Avenue. Its track was chosen to become a new public track, in part because it was 4 miles from the center of town, which was passable for most individuals despite war rations on gasoline and tires . Also, it was on the bus lines.

All movable parts of the closed Moltacqua track, such as the stands, judges’ stands and concession stands, have been relocated there.

Also, a three-eighths-mile straight or chute was added to the original half-mile track. This part of the track was the site where the rules and specifications for quarter horse racing were set by Melville Haskell between 1943 and 1946. It was the origin of the direct drop system, a standard for quarter horse racing. horse today.

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This chute is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as is the entire trail.

A champion stallion

In August 1943, Jelks took a trip to Lexington, Kentucky, where he purchased a yearling named Piggin’ String, who would become champion and sire many other champion racehorses.

The first season at Rillito Racecourse, from 1943 to 1944, had Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred races every Sunday, with the exception of the World Quarter Horse Championship sprint events in February, which took place over several days. Shue Fly was named World Quarter Running Horse Champion for the third year in a row.

Jelks’ new horse, Piggin’ String, ridden by Frank Figueroa, was the highlight of many races that season, as he dominated some races over other top horses. Jelks also raced several of his other top horses, including Tio and Retire, with several wins under their belt.

Prior to the start of the 1944-45 racing season, a small pamphlet about Rillito Race Track and the new American Quarter Racing Association (AQRA)—initiated by M. H. Haskell to keep ringers out of racing and organize the races—was printed.

New rules defined

The brochure shared a bit of information about the new AQRA on the last page:

“Racing at Rillito in 1944-45 will be conducted under the rules and regulations of the recently formed American Quarter Racing Association. The performance of the Horse and the promotion of clean sport being what concerns the Association, any unfair or unsportsmanlike conduct will be severely sanctioned by these rules. Provision is made for the registration “for racing purposes only” of all horses competing in Quarter Races and of any horse regardless of its eligible breeding. to identification, since the horse’s file will be kept on the back of its registration certificate which must be presented at each associated track where it wishes to start.The application for registration can be made at any recognized track by the Association or by writing to Mr. H. Haskell, Acting Registrar.”

The new organization was not officially organized until February 1945.

In January 1945, after the U.S. government requested that the Rillito race track be closed until further notice due to the war, Jelks temporarily donated the track and all of its facilities to the Tucson Livestock Show to hold the annual speed trials. There was no pari-mutuel betting that day, and the only reason for the speed tests was to assess performance, as it was a quality used to judge quarter horses.

Queeny overcomes

For this event, Jelks was planning to enter his best “short horse”, Piggin’ String, but he got injured. Jelks purchased Queeny (now spelled Queenie), a 6-year-old partially paralyzed mare who, despite her disability, had dominated races in New Mexico and Louisiana.

On February 4, 1945, the Quarter Horse World Championship Speed ​​Trials, part of the Tucson Horse Show, part of the 12th Annual Tucson Cattle Show, was held at Rillito Race Track, with a 12-race event which started at 1 pm

The featured race in the Speed ​​Trials was the World Champion Quarter-Mile Race with competitors such as Queeny, Squaw H. and Jeep B.

The local newspaper shared the results of the all-important sprint: “Setting a new track record of twenty-two seconds and seven tenths (22.7) for the quarter-mile dash yesterday at the Rillito, Queeny, … ridden by Frankie Figueroa, sniffed out … Squaw H., to win the quarterhorse quarter-mile world championship.The new queen of the 440-yard sprint cut five tenths of a second off the existing track record for dethrone Shue Fly, the defending champion.

In May 1945, it was announced that the federal government’s racing ban was lifted and that the Rillito track would have its official reopening in late October.

Film shot here

The highlight of the 1945-46 racing season at the Rillito track was the Pathe News filming of a quarter horse racing film.

On October 14, 1945, the opening day of the winter racing season, the track was attended by 3,000 racing fans.

A Pathe News director and cameraman had arrived in town a day earlier and a special booth had been built for them. The cameraman was there to film a short film on quarter horses. The film would tell the history and development of racing in this part of the country.





Snow is seen in the Santa Catalina Mountains as horses race at Rillito Park in January 1960.


Jack W. Sheaffer, Arizona Daily Star 1960


Over the next week, they recorded footage of Tucson from “A” Mountain, San Xavier Mission, and ranch scenes from nearby cattle ranches. The director chose “Roper”, a cow pony from Bob Locke’s new ranch near Three Points, to film during a cattle raid. They also filmed how it was handled and dragged into the race, and how it was towed and driven onto the race track to compete on Sunday.

A week later, during the following racing program, Pathe News shot more footage, this time of Roper, the grade A buckskin stallion who was listed on the 330 yard grade C dash , for image purposes only. He had rail position in the race but was not featured in the pari-mutuel pool, although the public were allowed to support their favorite runners from the other five starters in the Grade C event.

In February 1946, this 10-minute short titled “Quarterhorse” was shown at the Rialto Theater downtown.






J. Rukin Jelks as a young man


Courtesy of the Rillito Foundation


Arrival of female jockeys

In 1950, an article highlighted changes in the track related to female jockeys.

On February 26, 1950, an article appeared in the local newspaper about two of the top female jockeys in the southwest who competed at Rillito.

Nora K. Heare, a 24-year-old former Wellesley College English composition student, came to Arizona to study animal husbandry at the University of Arizona. She was already an excellent show and jumper and had three of her own horses here with her: Three Feathers, Cardinal Folly and Field Mouse. At that time, she and her husband George were training horses at the Jelks’ ranch.

The other jockey was Betty Bowdle, a 19-year-old from Salt Lake City. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Bowdle of Arivaca, who moved to Arizona while Betty was in high school. His father was a cowboy and his mother trained horses in Australia.

His first victory was in the Powder Puff Derby at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds in 1948 with Red Moss. At the time, Bowdle had an apprentice jockey license and was employed at Melville Haskell’s Rincon Stock Farms.

None of the women raced the corners on the track but were limited, due to the rules, to taking the dashes straight away.

No more world championship

For the 1950 and 1951 seasons, changes were made to races at the track which were explained in the local newspaper.

On November 3, 1950, it was reported that 11 high-stakes races, beginning in January 1951, would be held at Rillito Oval and that “Speed ​​Trials” had been eliminated and “World’s Championship Quarter (Mile) ” would be replaced. by “The Rillito Handicap” at 440 meters.

The new races have been named after people, places and horses. For example, The Roy Adams was named for James Roy Adams, a cowboy and rodeo star who had died a few years earlier; The Santa Catalina was named after the mountain range that sits majestically in the background of the Rillito Trail; and The Traveler was named after a founding bull of that American Quarter Horse breed name.

The newspaper explained the reason for the roster change and the reason for the elimination of the championship quarterback race:

“In recent years quarterback horse racing has found competitive racing grounds other than in the back pastures of sagebrush country, the ‘world championship quarterback’ has been removed in meaning future races here.

“Quarter horse racing is now an important part of some premier West Coast and South tracks. Therefore, with most great quarter-mile runners competing in more than half a dozen ovals, there is no race to determine the champion year by year.

“Judging will determine the champion from all records and performances compiled each year. For its part in contributing a fair share of contenders to champions at the pool, Rillito Race Track will replace the title ‘World Championship Quarter’ by “The Rillito Handicap”.

The 1951-52 and 1952-53 racing seasons saw numerous attendance and pari-mutuel betting records in part due to the change in racing format with many stake races bringing in top-notch horses from across the South West throughout the racing season, rather than just during speed events.

On June 4, 1953, Jelks sold the Rillito Race Track to a group of Tucson businessmen and women.

David Leighton is a historian and author of “The History of the Hughes Missile Factory in Tucson, 1947-1960”. He has been featured on PBS, ABC, Travel Channel, various radio shows, and his work has appeared on Arizona Highways. He named four local streets after trailblazers Federico and Lupe Ronstadt and barrel racer Sherry Cervi. If you have a street to suggest or a story to share, email him at [email protected]