At Rillito Racetrack's opening weekend, UA students aren't horsing around
Horse racing proceedings at Rillito Park Racetrack Feb. 10-11 had a distinctly Wildcat-like feel to them, with University of Arizona students at the helm of nearly every facet of race-day operations.
From the paddocks to the holding pen, UA Race Track Industry Program students worked throughout the park to make the weekend festivities a reality. That’s all by design, according to the tracks General Manager and UA alum Michael Weiss.
“For the past four seasons, I’ve worked with the students and placed them in positions that I think they’ll excel,” Weiss said. “And we’ve been about 100 percent with the graduating students in getting them jobs.”
Originally from Ohio, and a self-described racetrack industry “lifer,” Weiss has traveled from his home in Florida for the last four years to manage the 75-year-old Rillito, which bills itself as the home of quarter-horse racing and one of the first to implement a photo-finish.
When he first arrived at Rillito, Weiss could see the park's limitations. But he knew the UA RTIP was an untapped asset. He immediately changed that, and formed a partnership between the program and the racetrack.
“The first year I was here, I went over and worked with [RTIP] and asked, ‘What have your students ever done?’” he said. “They had never had an association [in the industry].”
That partnership has paid dividends. During opening weekend, animal sciences junior Nick Fanucchi wasn’t on site to help manage the horses.
Instead, after three years working in the graphics department and being responsible for accurately identifying horses and odds during Rillito’s international simulcast stream, Fanucchi was responsible for all race-day simulcast graphics.
While he didn’t direct which camera shot was used, he was responsible for relaying information to the camera operators on the ground regarding what needed to go into a shot.
“It’s good experience for me,” Fanucchi said. “I get in two hours before post to get race changes or deal with any changes really, and I’m usually done around 5:30 p.m. I have to wait to show the prices for the last race before I’m done.”
Weiss noted that with other students, he preferred to reassign them to new positions each season. Not so with Fanucchi. “He’s just so damn good at what he does,” Weiss said.
After growing up with family in the industry, Fanucchi said working at Rillito was a natural extension of something he grew up loving: seeing horses race.
Rillito’s social media manager, animal science senior Jade Eisenzimmer, shared that same love. However, she called enrolling in RTIP an act of “pure happenstance.”
A North Dakota native and experienced rider, Eisenzimmer found herself in the paddock shooting pictures on her smartphone.
“I’m running all facets of our social media: Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter,” she said. “We’re just taking any promotions that the track has and then we post it.”
Eisenzimmer said with the chaos of opening weekend, she had to enlist friends to help manage all four of Rillito’s social media platforms.
It’s that chaos that encourages Weiss. Although official numbers had not been released, he called the opening weekend attendance “great,” and said the atmosphere was something larger racetracks dreamed of.
With racing scheduled through March 18, Weiss encouraged UA students to attend. The track will hold themed weekends, with Feb. 24-25 dubbed “University of Arizona Days.” Admission will be free with a Cat Card.
Weiss sees the current partnership between Rillito and RTIP as mutually beneficial, using the term “working lab.”
“There really is nothing like it,” Weiss said. “We are showcasing the students, and at the same time we are in the show business industry.”
Follow Eddie Celaya on Twitter