Restoring the Glory of Rillito

By Monica Surfaro Spigelman

Quarter horse legends have thundered through the starting gates of Rillito Park Race Track since 1943.

Now the expertise and enthusiasm of the Rillito Park Foundation is driving innovation through that same straightaway.
It’s part of the Tucson way – this love of cow ponies and rancher sports that echo the iconic American West. Once upon a time, boisterous cowboys in big hats crowded the bleachers of this historic track, the first regulated racing quarter horse facility in the United States.

In this storied track’s 71st year, the foundation unveiled a plan to honor community interests while preserving an irreplaceable part of Tucson’s western traditions in an authentic dust-on-boots setting.

The nonprofit foundation, formed in 2011 by local business owners, sports leaders and ranching families, has committed $100,000 to launch restoration of the original J. Rukin Jelks Stud Farm, hacienda and stables on a rise just north of the race track at 1090 E. River Road.

Jefferson Rukin Jelks was a local rancher and pioneer of American quarter horse racing who founded the race track on his property, some 93 acres along the banks of the Rillito River, in 1943. Designed by local rancher and architect Frederic O. Knipe, the house, guest house and stables were built in 1940. The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012

The foundation is managing restoration of the Jelks’ site through a cooperative agreement with Pima County. It also is negotiating with the county – which owns the historic home, surrounding buildings, race track and Rillito Park – to lease and operate horse racing there next year. Generating revenue would be enterprises created by public-private partnerships which balance racing, soccer and community interests.

“What’s planned is a broad mix of events and athletics, while preserving the park for what the area was born to do,” said Jaye Wells, one of four founding foundation directors and an architectural designer with a passion for historic preservation. He’s a former trustee of Green Fields Country Day School. “We want to create a thriving community setting that’s also evocative of the western horse and rider – culturally, artistically and historically.”

In its natural desert clearing along the banks of the Rillito River, the park is a picturesque oasis of multi-use potential, and the foundation hopes to assist with other improvements in addition to the Jelks Stud Farm restoration, Wells said.

A supporter of soccer and horse racing as major assets of the park, the foundation is advocating a balanced plan that sustains both of these activities – using public-private partnership to take the burden off of taxpayers. The foundation also envisions other activities, including access to the 131 shared-use miles of pathways by the river wash plus events like farmers markets and concerts.

Harmony of architecture, nature
The first phase of private investment includes re-landscaping the nearly five acres of the Jelks Stud Farm with era-appropriate gardens, then opening the historic property for tours and special events such as weddings and corporate retreats – all the while eyeing the establishment of a new Museum of the Western Horse and Rider on the property.

The Jelks hacienda has withstood the test of time, looking exactly as it did in the 1940s. In 1953 Jelks sold to John and Mary Shoemaker. The county acquired the stud farm in 2007 along with memorabilia left in the home and stables after Mary died.

This 1,850-square-foot home has never been remodeled. With its courtyard facing the Santa Catalina Mountains and mature plantings cascading down to the race track, the Old West compound is a harmony of architecture and desert nature with hand-hewn mesquite beams, saguaro-ribbed ceilings and intricate oxblood brick flooring.

The stables were designed to face the courtyard across from the home so the Jelks and their horse-loving friends could share cocktail hour with the horses. The stables continue the western authenticity, with ornate ironwork, massive wood posts and stalls still marked with nameplates of champion quarter horses. There are other wonderful touches in the stables, including a tiled fireplace and nooks and crannies depicting racing folklore. A mural by famous racehorse artist Hughlette “Tex” Wheeler is still intact. Just north of the stables is an original Sonoran-style retaque fence of mesquite logs and brush. “A form of architecture as art,” Wells said.

In addition to the architectural features of the property itself, artifacts and memorabilia from both the Jelks and Shoemaker families will be displayed, including bronzes, paintings, photographs and stud records of famed horses.

Quarter horse racing started here
The Rillito Park Race Track is a treasure in a glittering history of western horse racing. Jelks, who ran the X-9 ranch in the Rincon Mountains, was immersed in horse breeding and in fostering a unique short-distance racing format for his favored cow ponies, the “poor man’s race horse.” He and his ranching buddies already were racing at a small track called Hacienda Moltacqua. When Moltacqua was sold in 1943, Jelks volunteered his stud farm’s training track to continue racing.

The art of quarter horse racing was perfected here, with Jelks and his friends modifying the traditional half-mile oval track and inventing chutes for the straightaway racing style. The track chute was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Here’s also where the photo-finish electric timer was born, and where the American Quarter Horse Racing Association was organized.

Romancing the authentic West
Even before the Museum of the Western Horse and Rider gallery is constructed, Wells and the foundation are spearheading collaborations with other museums on the new Arizona Exhibition Series – including in 2015 to present with the Smithsonian’s “George Catlin’s American Buffalo,” a traveling exhibition of original Catlin paintings from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collection. A Visit Tucson grant is seeding a collaborative effort with the Arizona Historical Society to launch the project.

The long-range business model envisions a boutique casita-styled hotel to be built within the complex, extending from the original buildings. Revenue from the hotel operation would cover the cost of operations and maintenance of the future museum gallery.

Since its founding in 2011, the foundation’s leadership has expanded to a team of 10 with representatives of soccer and horse racing, historic preservation and landscape architecture, philanthropy, hospitality, museums and and farmers markets.

Wells and other foundation directors see nothing but the potential in Rillito Park – from the Jelks restoration, to maintaining horse racing, expanding sporting events and building new facilities, including the museum. The foundation is the compass for discussions that lead to showcasing the site’s rare authentic western history, promoting private-public partnerships and energizing the park with activities that engage the entire community.

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