The beginning — always full of anticipation and excitement as one of the most popular and widely attended professional sports in the country makes its annual return to the Four Corners — is also the end of a rather long and sometimes unsettling campaign of turmoil within the sport over the last year.
With suspensions of some of the state's top barns, reports of rampant illegal drugs being used on horses and numerous stories regarding the welfare of the equine athlete around the state, SunRay Park and Casino had to share some of the burden in what had been a tumultuous last 12 months for the state of racing in the state of New Mexico.
And while SunRay Park and Casino avoided much of the negative publicity over the past year, thanks in large part to measures they'd taken on their own accord, the news did negatively effect the way people — both in and out of the industry — saw the sport and its future.
Now with the 2013 season just a few days away, SunRay Park and Casino is prepared to march forward with a 39-day season that gets underway Friday at 3pm, a 9-race program kicking things off with the featured event of the day, the $35,000 Inaugural Handicap for older thoroughbreds racing 6 1/2 furlongs.
Brad Boehm, chief operations officer at SunRay Park and Casino, admits it's been a trying past 12 months.
"Whenever you have situations like the ones racing dealt with this past year, where people were cheating, naturally you get suspicious," Boehm said. "You start wondering who's doing what."
More than a dozen New Mexico-based horsemen have faced sanctions based on drug violations with their horses.
In particular, John Bassett and Carlos Sedillo were each handed 10-year suspensions while Jeff Reed was suspended for 21 years. All three were found to have had horses in their care with traces of a painkiller called demorphin in their systems. One of those horses broke down after a race and had to be destroyed.
Vince Mares, director of the state's racing commission, has made it possible for stricter sanctions to be levied upon possible future infractions.
"It's helped a lot," said SunRay's director of racing Lonnie Barber, in regards to the stricter regulations. "We're getting people back, now that they're seeing that we're taking care of business."
And the business of horse racing is what the next 10 weeks will be all about at SunRay.
Fans likely won't notice the slightly reduced purse structure for the track's daily racing. While SunRay's overnight purses are still higher than Albuquerque Downs and Ruidoso Downs, they have dropped slightly across the board, notably in stakes races that have seen reductions by as much as $20,000 from last season.
"Horsemen knew coming in that there was going to be a dropoff," Barber said. "The economy still hasn't picked up locally the way we'd like it to. But that hasn't stopped a lot of barns from coming back this season."
In fact, Boehm and Barber stated that — again — stall applications for this season from trainers far exceeded the number of stalls that exist on the backstretch.
"The effect of the economy changes on a day-to-day basis with us," Boehm said. "We've been emphasizing how to do more with less to provide our customers with the best entertainment value."
The perspective of this upcoming racing season is one of optimism. New rules in place as far as medication standards, a greater dedication statewide to ensure that cheaters don't succeed and that the horses are looked after with even greater diligence has motivated many at SunRay to continue the positive momentum of a successful season, recently completed at Sunland Park, arguably the state's most successful track, near the New Mexico/Texas border near El Paso.
"There are signs things are turning around," Boehm said. "But that doesn't change the emphasis to continue giving the fans the best experience when they're on the grounds."
Opening day of the live racing season is something very special. Like with any sport, everything starts anew. The slate is clean and the next great horse is right around the corner and the first winning wager for a new fan is just further proof that the sport will continue to blossom with the right people in place.
Racing will be held four days a week through June 23, with post times on Tuesdays and Fridays at 3 p.m., with weekend post times at 12:55 p.m. There are special race dates on May 4, May 18 and June 8, which will also feature live simulating of the Triple Crown races.
Racing highlights this weekend include Saturday's $65,000 Russell and Helen Foutz Distaff Handicap, for state-bred fillies and mares racing 6 1/2 furlongs, and Sunday's $35,000 Animas Quarter Horse Stakes at a distance of 400 yards.