Some local horsemen get back to the track as live racing returns to Albuquerque Downs
Gap since May 30 when SunRay Park season ended put financial strain on San Juan County race horse owners
ALBUQUERQUE — The sense of anticipation for a new season of live racing is palpable to many, but for others in the business of horse racing, it may be too little too late.
The Downs at Albuquerque, which will open its live thoroughbred and quarter horse racing season under the lights Saturday night, will feature the highest purse structure in the history of the track, with as much as $300,000 in overnight purses available to horsemen participating in this shortened season which runs through Sunday, Sept. 19.
The featured race on Saturday's opening night program, which will get underway at 6:05 p.m., is the $75,000 (estimated) Bank of America Challenge Championship Stakes, a regional qualifying race for older quarter horses going 440 yards in which the winner automatically is nominated to the $250,000 Championship, which will be held on a special race card slated for the Downs at Albuquerque on Saturday, Oct. 23.
For horsemen in and around the state of New Mexico, the return of live racing comes not a moment too soon. Since the final day of live racing at Farmington’s SunRay Park and Casino on May 30, many horsemen have been waiting for a chance to earn purse monies only previously available within the state at Ruidoso Downs, some 360 miles away.
That distance, coupled with the limited availability of stalls on the Ruidoso backstretch in which to house their barns, have left some horsemen in the region looking elsewhere to race, or in some cases, not being able to race at all.
Prior to 2020, the time between the end of the SunRay season and the start of the Albuquerque season was significantly less. In 2019, the Albuquerque Downs season started on June 28, just 26 days following the conclusion of the SunRay meet.
This year, 75 days will have passed since the last race was run in the northern part of New Mexico before the gates spring open on Saturday, leaving many regional horsemen in a bit of a bind as to how pay the costs of feed, housing and veterinary care.
The lack of revenue generated by casinos in 2020 due to closures related to coronavirus, forced the New Mexico Racing Commission to allow racetracks (and their adjoining casinos) to curb back their racing dates to elevate purse distribution in 2021.
The Downs at Albuquerque did hold a racing season last year, albeit with no fans allowed in the grandstands. The casino accompanying the track also was shut down for much of the year.
Racing’s purse structure in the state is largely generated by a casino’s take through slot machines and other gaming options. Sunland Park, arguably the most successful racetrack in New Mexico, saw its entire 2020 season wiped out due to closures related to coronavirus, and instead offered up past casino revenue to enhance the purse structure at SunRay, Albuquerque and other tracks in the state when they were allowed to reopen.
The 2021 racing season at SunRay, which consisted of only 18 days, also had a higher purse structure than in past seasons, but that was little consolation for those local horsemen who waited months to get their horses back on the track.
Owners, trainers feel the fiscal strain
“Prices of everything went up, and we had nowhere to go,” said Farmington resident and owner/trainer Bernadette Leyba-Barrios, who ran several horses at SunRay and is scheduled to saddle a pair of starters on Saturday’s opening night program. “The costs don’t stop. The two-month gap between the end of Sunray to Albuquerque still costs us money to keep horses stabled there. There’s still costs for feed, for medication, for vet care, all of those things don’t go away just because we’re not racing.”
The price for hauling horses to Ruidoso is a costly one as well.
“With the vans needed to ship horses, the price of gas going up, the distance between here and there,” Leyba-Barrios said. “Some horsemen can make that trip, and some simply can’t.”
Chip Woolley, best known for saddling Mine That Bird to a historic win in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, has been a mainstay of New Mexico racing for nearly three decades. When racing shut down across the state last year, Woolley, as well as many other New Mexico-based horsemen, opted to move the majority of their operations out of state, where restrictions on live racing were lifted.
Woolley, a longtime Bloomfield resident, took a number of his horses to Canterbury Park, in Shakopee, Minnesota, while others like Todd Fincher, Justin Evans and Dick Cappellucci, all of whom have been staples in New Mexico racing, found themselves racing at tracks in Arizona, Texas, Louisiana and as far away as Florida.
“Why would New Mexico want to force all of us to leave and go somewhere else?” Woolley asked. “There was no reason to not stretch these meets out. They could have done that and made them a little more sustainable.”
Woolley will be represented this season at Albuquerque. He was planning to ship in nearly a dozen horses for the upcoming season, but he worries about the future of racing in the state.
“I would love to come back exclusively to New Mexico if the state racing commission gave us a reason to come back,” Woolley said. “But these shorter meets took no consideration as to the expense of the horsemen to move from one part of the state to another.”
Ismael Trejo, executive director of the NMRC has called the 2021 racing calendar a rebuilding year, with the hopes of returning some normalcy to racing dates and extended seasons down the road. But SunRay Park has already been approved for another 18-day season beginning next April, and Sunland Park, which will open its next season on Dec. 31, will be shorter as well, the 51-day season racing through March 27, 2022.
All told, New Mexico’s racing calendar in 2022 will be reduced from 255 days of racing to 194, a total of 61 days lost.
"It's career suicide for the smaller outfits," according to Justin Evans, who has been one of the leading trainers in the state for nearly a decade before racing cancellations forced him to move his operation to Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Arizona last year.
"The racing commission has failed the horsemen in this state," Evans said. "They made it so the tracks could run as few days as possible without any regard for what it was doing to the smaller barns."
Evans, who estimated he was shipping in as many as 45 horses for the Downs at Albuquerque season, said as soon as it was done, he was headed back to Turf Paradise, where their next racing season will run from Nov. 7 through May 7, 2022.
"There, I can run five days a week for a longer period of time," Evans said. "But the smaller outfits, they don't have that luxury."
Last 16 months 'a nightmare'
Meantime, with opening night fast approaching, the Downs at Albuquerque will be the center of attention for racing fans in this part of the state.
“I know these last 16 months have been a nightmare for everyone,” said Don Cook, president of Racing for the Downs at Albuquerque. “But we’re slowly starting to get back to some kind of rhythm now of what everyone is going to do.”
Cook understands all too well the plight of horsemen who made the move to other parts of the country and hopes they’ll slowly start to refocus their attentions on New Mexico racing.
“It was unfortunate that Sunland canceled due to the pandemic, which forced them to race elsewhere,” Cook said. “A majority of our horses went to Arizona and competed well, some trainers stayed there and others split their stables. Now that Albuquerque will be racing and they’ll be racing for more money than they ever did before, I think they’re excited to come back.”
Live racing will be conducted Wednesday, as well as Friday through Sunday through the season. In addition to attending the races live, you can also watch and wager on the races locally at SunRay Park and Casino. More information about the season can be found at www.abqdowns.com
Steve Bortstein can be reached via email at SBortstein@Gannett.com, via Twitter @DTSBortstein or on the phone at (505) 635-2680