Live racing set to return at Sunland Park after 21-month hiatus

Steven Bortstein
Farmington Daily Times

SUNLAND PARK — For the first time in more than 650 days, the sights and sounds of live racing will return to New Mexico's most prestigious racetrack when Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino opens its doors for its 62nd season of racing beginning Friday, Dec. 31.

The highly anticipated live racing season will feature a mixture of quarter horse and thoroughbred racing for a 55-day meet that runs through Sunday, April 3, 2022.

Live racing was shut down at Sunland Park, located near El Paso, Texas on March 15, 2020, as the pandemic forced businesses of all kinds across the country to close. And while the casino was reopened earlier this year and patrons have been allowed to watch and wager on races from across the country, the return of live racing will be a welcome change.

Hustle Up won the Mine That Bird Derby on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino. The Mine That Bird Derby is a prep race for the Sunland Derby in March.

"People want to see the races again. There's a hunger and an appetite for it around here," said Sunland Park publicity director Eric Alwan. "I think that's the same all around, whether you're on the business end of it or as a bettor."

The upcoming live racing season will offer some of the richest races in the southwest. The $15-million dollar purse structure will pay out over $250,000 to horsemen per race day.

The highlight of the upcoming season will be the $500,000 Sunland Derby, a Grade 3 event to be run on Sunday, Mar. 27, 2022. A major stepping stone race on the road to the Kentucky Derby, the Sunland Derby offers 50 qualifying points to the winner for entry to the 2022 Run for the Roses.

The 17th edition of the 1 1/8-mile classic anchors a huge day worth over $1.6 million in purse monies. The enriched $300,000 Sunland Park Oaks as well as the $250,000 New Mexico Breeders’ Derby are also part of Sunland Park’s biggest day.

The 2019 Sunland Derby day program handled an all-time New Mexico State record all-sources handle of over $4.8 million.

National interest and appetite for the Sunland Park racing product is strong as opening day approaches. 

Aggressive Driver won the West Texas Derby on Saturday, March 7, 2020 at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino.

"The return of live racing is a great way to get that national attention going again," Alwan said. "The purse money is there, and that will go a long way to get the fans back again."

In addition to some of the track's top trainers in recent years like Todd Fincher, Joel Marr and Dick Cappelucci being represented this season, SunRay Park and Casino's leading trainer this past season Martin Valdez-Cabral, Jr., has more than 35 stalls filled on the Sunland Park backstretch.

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Former jockey Nancy Summers, who finished second in the trainer standings last spring at SunRay, also will have a big presence as well at Sunland this season, with more than 40 horses in the stable area.

Kentucky Derby-winning trainer and longtime Bloomfield resident Chip Woolley will also have an impact on the upcoming Sunland season. With 24 stalls occupied on the backstretch, the trainer of 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird is hoping to have a winning Sunland campaign. 

Fans watch the 2019 Sunland Derby at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino.

The 2021-22 season hits the ground running with an excellent opening weekend menu, highlighted by the $100,000 New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap and the $65,000 KLAQ Handicap for thoroughbred sprinters on Saturday, Jan. 1.

The following day, the world’s finest quarter horses converge in the Grade 1 Championship at Sunland Park worth $350,000. The 20th running of the 440-yard feature may attract leading stakes winner and qualifier Danjer, a 5-time Grade 1 stakes winner and earner of more than $1.3 million.

Prep races to the Sunland Derby include the $100,000 Riley Allison Derby at one mile on Sunday, Jan. 30 and the $100,000 Mine That Bird Derby at 1 1/16th-miles on Sunday, Feb. 27.

Among other key races this upcoming season will be the $100,000 Sunland Park Handicap at 1 1/8-miles on Saturday, April 2, as well as the closing day featured events, the $250,000-estimated New Mexican Spring Futurity and $250,000-estimated West Texas Futurity for two-year-old quarter horses.

Steve Bortstein can be reached via email at, via Twitter @DTSBortstein or on the phone at (505) 635-2680.