Rillito Race Track is located at 4502 North First Avenue, Tucson, Arizona 85718 and sits on 90 acres. The Rillito Race Track was built on Rukin Jelk's Stud Farm, one of the founders of modern Quarter Horse Racing. The Rillito Park Foundation manages many aspects of the racetrack including the Jelks Stud Farm house which in and of itself is a historic site, eleven full-size soccer fields and facilities near the track that are used for a year round farmers’ market. The foundation is dedicated to preserving and future development of the racetrack. In January of 2017 the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved a four-year extension of racing through June 2021.
According to historian David Leighton, the Rillito Race Track exists because of one man, Jefferson Rukin Jelks.
Rukin Jelks, was born on the family farm, near McCrory, Arkansas in 1899 and it was here that he developed a passion for animal husbandry, and gained early experience with horses as he rode to school, all the way through high school
He served in World War I and after his return home, spent two years studying agriculture at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Around that time he contracted tuberculosis, which led his parents to send him to Tucson, whose climate was well known for relieving the symptoms of T.B., and to attend the University of Arizona where he graduated with a degree in animal husbandry in 1922.
Soon after, Jelks married his childhood sweetheart Della Jeffries in McCrory and on the same day they returned to Tucson to start their new life together. Within a couple of years, they befriended Melville and Katherine Haskell and formed a lifelong friendship.
In 1927, Della became pregnant, but the pregnancy was difficult and after the birth of their son in October, she passed away.
In 1929, Jelks wed Mary Haskell, the sister of his friend Melville Haskell and the newlyweds took up residence in a new home that was on a ranch about 30 miles from Tucson. This house was the source of the name of Jelks' ranch, the Casa Blanca Ranch or White House Ranch.
Within a few years Jelks began breeding horses. At the time,there wasn’t any real racing in Tucson, except the occasional match race, but Jelks and a young 65-pound lad named of Frankie Figueroa began to develop and train race horses. He also constructed two race tracks on his property over the years.
In January 1937, Jelks began to race some of his horses on the quarter-mile straightaway and around the polo field at Bob Locke's Moltacqua Horse Farm on Ajo Way and the Santa Cruz River. This oval had no starting gate, grandstands or paddocks, and no betting of any kind was allowed but this might have been the first organized or semi-organized horse racing in Tucson. Over the next few months there were a total of six race meets, with Jelks mostly running a thoroughbred named Rincon Sun and his friend Mel Haskell also ran a thoroughbred, named Flora Upset, at several of the races.
In 1938, Rukin and Mary Jelks divorced but the following year Jelks remarried this time to Frances Barry. Around this time he also sold his Casa Blanca Ranch which was later renamed the X-9 Ranch.
In 1940, Jelks purchased land located between the Rillito River and River Road, just east of North First Avenue. Here he had his new home and stables built in Sonoran-revival style, including saguaro-ribbed ceilings, double-thick burnt adobe walls, hand-hewn mesquite timbers and iron work from Mexico.
The same year, Bob Locke purchased land along Sabino Canyon Road, near the Tanque Verde Creek, about eight miles from Tucson and built the Hacienda Moltacqua ranch and a new half-mile race track. Locke, Jelks, Haskell, Jake Meyer, Clancy Wollard and other local horse owners and breeders formed the Tucson Horseman's Association, which in turn sponsored the races at the track. It also sponsored the first World's Championship Quarter Horse Speed Trials, which for many years decided which quarter horse would bear the title World Champion Quarter Running Horse. The first horse to bear this title was Clabber.
After the first season (1940-41) ended, the association changed its name to the Southern Arizona Horse Breeders Association (SAHBA) but continued to sponsor races at the Moltacqua track for the next two seasons (1941-42 & 1942-1943) which saw a sorrel mare Shue Fly win the speed trials. Toward the end of the 1942-1943 race season, Locke decided to sell his Hacienda Moltacqua, leaving horse owners without a place to race their horses.
After a few months, Jelks offered up his personal training track, on his ranch, on River Road. His track was chosen to become a new public track, partly because it was four miles from the center of the city, which was workable for most individuals despite war rations on gas and tires and it was also on the bus lines. All of the movable parts from the closed Moltacqua track, such as the grandstands, judges’ stand and concessions stands, were relocated there.
Also, a three-eighths-of-a-mile straightaway or chute was added to the original half-mile track. This portion of the track was the site where the rules and specifications for quarter horse racing were established by Melville Haskell between 1943 -1946. It is the origin of the straightaway chute system, a standard for quarter horse racing today.
In August 1943, Jelks took a trip to Lexington, Kentucky, where he purchased a yearling by the name of Piggin’ String, who would go on to be a champion and also sire numerous other champion race horses.
The first season at the Rillito Race Track, 1943 to 1944, had both quarter horse and thoroughbred races each Sunday, with the exception of the World’s Championship Quarter Horse Speed Trials in February, which were held over multiple days. Shue Fly was named the World Champion Quarter Running Horse for the third consecutive year.
Before the beginning of the 1944-45 racing season, a small pamphlet about the Rillito Race Track and the new American Quarter Racing Association (AQRA) — initiated by M.H. Haskell to keep ringers from running and to put racing on an organized basis — was printed.
The pamphlet shared a little information about the new AQRA on the back page:
“Racing at Rillito during 1944-45 will be conducted under the Rules and Regulations of the recently formed American Quarter Racing Association. Since performance of the Horse and the promotion of clean sport are what the Association is interested in, any foul riding or unsportsmanlike behavior will be severely penalized under these rules. Provision is made for registration ‘for racing purposes only’ of all horses taking part in Quarter Races and any horse, no matter what his breeding is eligible. This will help in handicapping as well as identification, since the horse’s record will be kept on the back of his Registration Certificate which must be presented at each Associated Track where he wished to start. Application for registration may be made at any track recognized by the Association or by writing to M.H. Haskell, Acting Registrar.“ The new organization wasn’t formally organized until February of 1945.
In January 1945, after the U.S. government had requested the Rillito Race Track be shut down until further notice due to the war, Jelks temporarily donated the track and all its facilities to the Tucson Livestock Show to hold the yearly speed trials. There wasn’t any pari-mutuel wagering that day, and the only reason for the speed tests was to gauge performance, as that was a quality used in judging quarter horses.
For this event, Jelks planned on entering his top “short horse,” Piggin’ String, but he was injured. Jelks instead purchased Queeny (now spelled Queenie), a 6-year-old partially crippled mare who despite her disability had dominated races in New Mexico and Louisiana.
On Feb. 4, 1945, the World’s Championship Quarter Horse Speed Trials, part of the Tucson Horse Show, in connection with the 12th annual Tucson Livestock Show, was held at the Rillito Race Track, with a 12-race event that began at 1 p.m. The featured race of the speed trials was the World’s Champion Quarter Mile Race with competitors including Queeny, Squaw H. and Jeep B.
The local paper shared the results of the important sprint: “Setting a new track record of twenty-two and seven-tenths seconds (22.7) for the quarter-mile dash yesterday at Rillito racetrack, Queeny, … piloted by Frankie Figueroa, nosed out … Squaw H., to win the world’s quarterhorse quarter-mile championship. The new queen of the 440-yard dash chopped five-tenths of a second off the existing track record to dethrone Shue Fly, the defending champion.”
The highlight of the 1945-46 race season at the Rillito oval was the filming by Pathe News of a motion picture on quarter horse racing.
On Oct. 14, 1945, opening day of the winter racing season, a Pathe News director and cameraman arrived to film a short on quarter horses. The motion picture would tell the history and development of racing in this section of the nation.
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 on Bob Locke’s new ranch near Three Points, to film during a cattle round-up. They also filmed how he was handled and trained to race, and how he was trailered and driven to the race track to compete on Sundays.
A week later, at the following race program, Pathe News shot more footage, this time of Roper the Grade A buckskin stallion who was entered into the Grade C 330-yard dash, for picture purposes only. He had the rail position in the race but wasn’t figured in the mutuel wagering pool, although the public was allowed to back their favorite steeds among the five other starters in the Grade C event.
In February 1946, this 10-minute short subject film called “Quarterhorse” ran at the Rialto Theatre in downtown.
For the 1950-1951 season, changes were made to racing at the track that were explained in the local paper.
On Nov. 3, 1950, it was reported that 11 big stake races, beginning in January 1951, would take place at the Rillito track and that the “speed trials” had been eliminated and “World’s Championship Quarter (Mile)” would be replaced by “The Rillito Handicap” at 440 yards.
The new races were being named in honor of people, places and horses. For example, The Roy Adams was named for James Roy Adams, a cowboy and rodeo star who had died a couple of years earlier; The Santa Catalina was named for the mountain range sitting majestically in the background of the Rillito track; and The Traveler was named in honor of a foundation sire by that name of the American Quarter Horse breed.
The newspaper explained the reason for the lineup change and the reason for the elimination of the championship quarter race:
“Since in the past few years, quarter horse races have found competitive running grounds other than in back pastures of the sagebrush country, the ‘World’s Championship Quarter,’ has been dispensed of in the sense of the meaning for future racing meets here. Quarter horse racing is now a major part of some West Coast and Southern tracks of prominence. Therefore, with many of the great quarter-mile racers taking part on more than a half dozen ovals, there is no race to determine the champion year by year. The judging will determine the champion from all records and performances compiled each year. For its part in contributing a goodly share of champion contenders to the pool, Rillito Race Track will supplant the ‘World’s Championship Quarter’ title with ‘The Rillito Handicap.’”
The 1951-52 and 1952-53 race seasons saw numerous records in attendance and pari-mutuel betting due in part to the change in racing format with numerous stake races bringing in top-notch horses from across the Southwest throughout the race season, rather than just during the speed trials.
On June 4, 1953, Jelks sold the Rillito Race Track to a group of Tucson businessmen and women.
2012 - Listed on the National Register of Historic Places
2017 - Many donors stepped up for the 2017 winter session held between February and March. Thoroughbred racing and Quarter Horse racing were both held.
2018 - The Rillito Race Track will be celebrating 75 years.
Rillito Race Track Views
Original race track included a 'chute' straightaway and later with a five-eighth-mile oval added in 1953, Thoroughbred racing was brought to the track.
Rillito Race Track Art
Rillito Race Track Memorial
Rillito Race Track 2018
Rillito will race Saturdays and Sundays, along with two Friday programs, winter 2018 starting in February through March.
Gates open at 10 a.m. and close after the last Simulcast race.
General Admission is $5 and Clubhouse Admission is $10.
No outside food or beverages are allowed in. Please no pets.
P.O. Box 64145
Tucson, AZ 85718
4502 North First Avenue
Tucson, Arizona 85718
(520) RILLITO (745-5486)
Rillito Park Foundation - http://rillitoparkfoundation.org/history/
Rillito Race Track - http://rillitoracetrack.com/
Rillito Race Track Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/rillitoracetrack/
Jelks Stud Farm - http://www.jelksstudfarm.org/
Daily Racing Forum Article - http://www.drf.com/news/rillito-park-given-new-lease-life-opens-14-day-meet
Tucson Weekly article by Rebecca Noble - April 07 2016 - https://www.tucsonweekly.com/tucson/day-at-the-track/Content?oid=6091632
Arizona Daily Star article by David Leighton-April 4, 2022--Street Smarts: J. Rukin Jelks helped put Tucson on the horse racing map | History | tucson.com
Arizona Daily Star article by David Leighton-April 4, 2022--Street Smarts: Why Tucson's Rillito Race Track is a national historic site | History | tucson.com