Horses head for the finish line on the second day of racing in Sonoita.  Photo by Sally Reichardt

Some of the 1,751 racegoers were drawn to the 108th running of the Sonoita Races the weekend of May 6 -7 because of the allure of the Kentucky Derby. They came dressed to the nines to enjoy the mint juleps, the Derby hat contest, the Turf Club, and the party atmosphere. Some, sitting quietly in front of the TV screens as they studied the program, came for the betting. And some came simply to admire the horses. 

The popular Derby Hat contest drew contestants of all ages. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

According to Sonoita Fairgrounds manager Lacy Beyer, attendance on Derby Day was up by 400 over 2022’s total. On Sunday 750 people came through the gates. More than 60 volunteers stepped up to work at this year’s races. The Derby hat contest, organized by Megan Thomas and Jessica Hughes, had 76 entrants, with gift certificates to the Corner Scoop, the Steakout Restaurant and Copper Brothel Brewery awarded to the winners. Local wineries donated wine and Twisted Union donated wine tastings for a raffle held in the Turf Club.

Racegoers got to experience a host of improvements to the grounds, including completely rebuilt grandstands. “Every single board was replaced,” said Ed Gaines, Chairman of the 2023 Sonoita Races. The SCCFRA, which owns the Sonoita Fairgrounds, also replaced the sound system in the grandstands, built a wash station for the animals, painted buildings, and refurbished the women’s restrooms. The work was paid for with over $1 million in State funds awarded to the SCCFRA in 2022 for capital improvements, racing expenses and purses.

However, because there was no comparable additional funding from the state in 2023, the size of this year’s purses—the money won by the winners—was much lower than last, dropping from $159,000 to $69,000. Still, all eight races were filled both days. The horse owners and trainers showed up to run, in part, perhaps, because of the limited opportunities left for racing in the state. 

The bad press that racing has gotten in recent years has put a damper on the popularity of the sport. There have been nine horses that have died at Churchill Downs in Kentucky since the end of April. Santa Cruz County’s native son Bob Baffert, a leading trainer nationally who got his start at the Sonoita Fairgrounds, has found himself at the center of controversy. He was banned from running in the Kentucky Derby for two years because of allegations of drugging horses, and has had 74 horses die under his care in California since 2000, according to the Washington Post. 

Three accidents cast a pall on racing on Sunday in Sonoita. A seven-year-old thoroughbred mare was euthanized after breaking her leg in the fifth race. The incident caused the Fairgrounds to cancel the remaining three races of the day. 

Although accidents like this are not commonplace, they are a fact of life in the racing world. In this same race last year at the Sonoita Races, a horse was also euthanized after an injury. 

The mare in this year’s race and the horse in last year’s race were both racing in a $2500 claiming race, where horses can be bought, or ‘claimed’ just prior to the race. In the world of racing, low-budget claiming races are the bottom in terms of the quality of horses being raced. 

Beyer and Gaines both felt that, going forward, the Fairgrounds should consider not including claiming races. “We should do anything we can do to increase safety for horses,” Gaines said. “$2,500 claiming races are a recipe for disaster.” 

Before last year’s races, the board voted to eliminate any races for two-year olds in an effort to reduce the chances of injuries. “We got pushback from owners, but we stuck with this,” Beyer said.

This year, there were two other accidents on Sunday, one when the girth on a saddle came loose, causing the horse to throw its rider and leap two fences to get off the track. In the second accident, the horse didn’t make the turn after the finish line, threw his jockey off and flipped over the rail. In both incidents the horses only suffered minor injuries and the jockeys refused medical care. 

County racing in Arizona is in danger of disappearing, not only because of controversies regarding the sport, but also because of lack of venues. In the past, horse races were held in at least seven counties across the state, but as the popularity of the sport has waned, so has the industry. This year, only Douglas and Sonoita had racing. “I am really concerned about the future of horse racing across the country, never mind in Arizona,” said Gaines. 

Of the three commercial tracks in the state, Turf Paradise has been sold and the future of racing there is uncertain, and Arizona Downs in Prescott did not race this year. This could leave Rillito Downs in Tucson as the only active track in the state. The racing industry could not survive with such a limited number of racing days in the state. “The future of horse racing in Arizona is unknown,” Beyer said. “It really depends on what the commercial tracks do.” 

“[County racing] is such a tradition,” said Gaines. “It would break my heart if we didn’t keep doing this.”