TUCSON- This weekend marks the fifth straight weekend of horse racing at Rillito Park.
The historic Tucson track, first opened in 1943, is under fire as questions continue to surface as to why horses are dying on the track.
A total of seven horses have died since the racing season began in late February.
“We try to do and we do everything right in my book,” said Rillito Racetrack general manager Mike Weiss. “We try to protect the horses, to protect the jockeys. It’s a sport and it has a dangerous side to it.”
Rillito says he has vets who check the horses before and after the race.
According to Weiss, jockeys are encouraged to speak up if something is wrong on race day so a horse can be scratched before heading to the starting gate.
“We implemented an equine welfare program using University of Arizona students, veterinary students and veterinarians,” Weiss said. “We do our best to protect the athletes and we are known to the point that the big tracks in the country have turned to us to see what our program is.
“If you ask the riders who ride this track every day, who come to train, this is not the track, this is the best the track has ever been,” said long-distance rider Sandy Johnston. Rillito date. “Accidents happen. It’s a sport with horses running at 45 miles an hour. They were born to race and they love their job.”
Gary Vella is an animal rights activist with the group SPEAK, Supporting And Protecting the Ethics of the Animal Kingdom.
“The program is in full force and we have seven horses dying in eight days,” Vella said. “This program does not work.”
Vella wants to see races canceled for the rest of the season.
He has long protested to have horse racing banned in Arizona.
“There’s no magic wand you can wave or button you can press to take it off,” Vella said. “The only way to prevent the death of these magnificent animals is to stop exploiting them for profit and superficial entertainment.”
There are just four days of racing left this season with the closing day on Sunday April 3.