Live horse racing returns to SunRay Park April 22

Steven Bortstein
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Live horse racing is set to make its return to the Four Corners next month with the opening day at SunRay Park and Casino set for Friday, April 22.

And off the heels of one of the most successful seasons in track history last year, there is optimism that another strong 18-day campaign is fast approaching.

Last spring, racing under the watchful eye of pandemic-related restrictions which limited numbers of people in public spaces, SunRay Park and Casino reopened, ending a gap of nearly 700 days between races at the historic racetrack.

The 2020 racing season at SunRay Park was shuttered because of COVID-19 restrictions. Live racing in New Mexico was locked down completely for months. And while Albuquerque Downs, Ruidoso and Zia Park did hold truncated racing seasons later in the year, albeit with little to no fans in attendance, the damage to many horsemen was already done.

"It was devastating for so many of us who rely on tracks like SunRay to keep our operations afloat," said trainer Justin Evans, who has been a mainstay in New Mexico racing for more than a decade. "We had no choice but to go elsewhere."

For Evans, and horsemen like Todd Fincher, Dick Cappellucci and Chip Woolley, who have won multiple races at SunRay over the past decade, relocation meant shipping most of, if not their entire operation to neighboring states like Arizona and Texas and even further east to Minnesota and Louisiana.

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Magic Mosco, shown here winning the San Juan County Commissioner's Handicap, May 30, 2021 at SunRay Park and Casino

But when SunRay Park's live racing did open its doors last season, fans and bettors responded in record numbers.

On-track figures showed impressive resilience while dealing with state-imposed attendance restrictions. Despite the limitations placed on patron capacity throughout the property, on-track handle still managed to increase by over 15 percent over the 2019 campaign.

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"We were incredibly pleased and humbled by the tremendous response from both our on and off track patrons," said SunRay Park general manager Brad Boehm. "To receive that kind of reaction after being shuttered for so long is more than we could have ever expected."

And it wasn't just on-track attendance and handle that saw growth last year.

The 18-day stand yielded a staggering 123 percent gain in total handle. SunRay Park's live racing found an entirely new national simulcast audience, finishing up 137 percent versus a 17-day season in 2019.

Total handle of better than $7 million reflected an uptick of well over $3 million from previous meet figures.

Much of that likely had to do with the fact that many people, looking for something to do during the pandemic, found some relief in getting outdoors and taking in live sports.

"We had to deal with so many of the same staffing issues that we've heard about nationally, it just seemed every day last year was putting out fires," Boehm said. "We started a business from scratch in a lot of ways." 

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Currently, Sunland Park is in the final days of their 2021-2022 racing season, and it appears that the numbers for both handle and attendance have been strong there as well. The El Paso-based track was forced to shut down the last month of the 2020 season and the entire 2021 campaign due to the pandemic. The current season, which comes to an end on Sunday, has been one of the strongest on record.

And now, with the restrictions appearing to be a thing of the past and some sense of normalcy returning to the New Mexico racing calendar, SunRay Park appears ready for another strong season.

"Purses are going to be up, some people are going to be coming back that might have stayed away because of the pandemic," according to director of racing Lonnie Barber. "We got quite a bit of response from people in Arizona and Colorado as well."

Among those horsemen scheduled to have a presence on the backstretch this season will be Nancy Summers, who finished in a tie for second in the trainer standings at last year's meet and is currently enjoying a strong campaign at Sunland Park. 

Evans will be back as well, hoping to reclaim his position as one of the most successful thoroughbred trainers in the history of New Mexico racing.

Evans has dominated the trainer standings throughout the state for the better part of a decade and is currently doing much the same in Phoenix, where he has a substantial lead in the standings at the current racing season at Turf Paradise. 

In addition to catering to fans looking for some excitement on the racetrack, SunRay Park's live racing season also means new opportunities for employment, whether it be in the casino or the restaurant or assisting in the day-to-day operation of the racing season.

"Live racing is always a big deal for us, it impacts every employee on the property and it has such a big impact on the community as a whole," Boehm said. "We hope we created some new fans last year and I think we did that."

Purse monies which will go to the horsemen will be at a record high this season as well, with more than $1.1 million in stakes purses through the meet and overnight purses approaching $240,000 per day.

"We feel like we've set a great stage for the horsemen and to have something to look forward to," Boehm said. "Last year, there were just so many unknowns if we'd stay open, if we'd be shut down. Now we've got some momentum and excited to see where it goes."

The opening day of the upcoming SunRay season will be highlighted by the $75,000 Inaugural Stakes, while the Saturday and Sunday programs will feature a pair of $100,000 stakes races, including Russell and Helen Foutz Distaff Handicap and the New Mexico Breeders Stakes.

In all, seven stakes races during the 18-day season will feature purses of $100,000 or greater, with much of that money being distributed to owners and breeders of horses in the state of New Mexico.

For more information on the upcoming SunRay Park and Casino live racing season, check out their official page on Equibase.com

Steve Bortstein can be reached via email at SBortstein@Gannett.com, via Twitter @DTSBortstein or on the phone at (505) 635-2680. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.