Horse racing: SunRay season highlights change, opportunity

Steve Bortstein for The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Horse racing, much like any professional sport, falls under the scrutiny of watchful eyes on every turn.

Whether the news is good or bad, the sports we follow often come with their own separate headlines.

Friday, when the new season of live horse racing opens at SunRay Park and Casino, there is more good news for the sport than bad.

American Pharaoh's successful Triple Crown bid, which culminated last month when he won the Belmont Stakes in New York City, brought in enormous positive publicity.

When the gates spring open for the first race of the season, the local fan base will get the opportunity to see for themselves what makes racing such a unique and amazing sport.

SunRay's live racing season will open with new incentives for horsemen, inviting more participation in racing with bonus monies attached to purses for full fields.

There will also be additional wagers on the menu, including a daily pentafecta, otherwise known as the Super High Five Jackpot, in which bettors must determine the top five finishers in a race. This wager will be offered on the final race for each day of the 36-day season.

The Super High Five will be a minimum 50 cent wager and will feature a 21 percent takeout, the lowest allowed in New Mexico. The wager will also feature a potential carryover pool, meaning if no bettor successfully picks the top five finishers on one day, the entirety of that day's pool will carry over to the following day.

Saturday and Tuesday racing programs this season will feature all thoroughbred races. Each Friday, with the exception of this week's opening-day program, will feature all quarter horse races, a special day called "Freaky Fast Fridays."

In addition to those changes, this season will be opening later in the year. It was announced last year that Sunray and the Downs at Albuquerque would be switching racing dates in 2015 and 2016 to better accommodate horsemen across the state.

Recent years had seen the live season at Sunray followed by nearly a month-long gap before live racing opened in Albuquerque. Switching the dates allowed for a more cohesive track calendar with the downtime significantly shorter following a record season of racing at the Downs at Albuquerque.

General manager Brad Boehm feels the later racing dates gives the track the opportunity to cash in on racing's recent sweet spot in the sports world.

"In addition to not having the colder weather with racing in the spring, we lined out pretty well starting at this time of year," Boehm said. "We're riding that momentum, offering entertainment on Fridays, to make it more about the customer experience."

To that end, the customer and the horsemen alike will benefit from a new incentive paid back to those trainers, jockeys and horsemen who run in races with full fields.

A 10 percent bonus will be added to purses in many live races this season where nine or more runners leave the starting gate.

"The bottom line is bettors like full fields," Boehm said. "Incentives like this, we hope will allow for more opportunities for bettors to play into full fields, which will allow us to pay off the horsemen who participate in the actual racing."

Entries for the first three days of the season have shown that the incentives appear to have an impact. Nearly half of the 27 races drawn for the first three days of the season have fields of nine or more.

And with more horses expected to arrive from across the country to Sunray Park and Casino, those numbers are expected to rise even more.

A constant at Sunray Park and Casino is leading trainer Justin Evans, who will be back to defend his title this season.

Evans, who finished third in the country last year among wins for trainers, is currently 11th in the standings, but he's coming off another training title at the recently completed meet at Albuqeurque.

"We're always excited about coming here," Evans said. "We had a real good run (at Albuquerque). Some of our better horses are starting to come around -- we get certain horses ready for this track."

The opening day program, highlighted by the $35,000 Inaugural Handicap, gets underway Friday with a first post time of 3 p.m. All Friday programs will start at that same post time.

Programs for Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday will open at 1:30 p.m.