Live racing is back: SunRay Park attracts big numbers for opening day program

Steven Bortstein
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A total of 98 horses were entered for Friday's opening day program of the 2022 season of quarter horse and thoroughbred racing at SunRay Park and Casino.

The featured attraction of the opening day card is the Inaugural Handicap, set for older thoroughbreds racing 6 1/2 furlongs. A field of nine were entered for the Inaugural, which will go as the ninth race of a 10-race card, headlined by multiple stakes winning Mine That Star.

A Kentucky-bred son of Pioneerof The Nile, Mine That Star is a half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, trained by Nancy Summers and slated to be ridden by Kelsi Purcell for owners Judge Lanier Racing.

The return of live racing brings with it both excitement for fans at the track and the hope that horsemen will fill the entry box to provide those in attendance a multitude of opportunities for quality viewing and wagering.

And coming off the success of a recently concluded Sunland Park racing season which saw increases in both on-track attendance and handle, there is reason for optimism.

Overnight purses are higher this year than they were last season at SunRay, with the average purse more than $4,000 higher than they were in 2021, which was one of the most successful seasons in track history.

Mine That Star, shown here winning the Curribot Handicap on March 5, 2022 at Sunland Park, is entered in Friday's Inaugural Handicap at SunRay Park and Casino

And while the opening day numbers at the entry box are impressive, there may be a downside to all the excitement if a continuing dispute between horsemen and track management plays havoc with the 18-day season, which runs through May 29.

The dispute appears to be related to disparities in purse distribution between certain types of races during the course of the season.

Maiden claiming races, in which non-winners race against each other and can be bought by horsemen before entering the starting gate, will race for purses ranging from $9,000 to $16,000 through the first two weeks of the season, while allowance races, typically for winners, will race for purses ranging from $43,000 to $55,000.

More:Cordarelton Benn ready to have impact in SunRay Park's jockeys race as live racing returns

In fact, purses are significantly higher across the board than they were for opening day last year. The average purse money available in non-stakes races on Friday is more than $21,200, as opposed to nearly $17,000 per race last year.

"The purses are higher this season than they've been in five years," said general manager Brad Boehm. "And we've gotten a lot of interest from barns in neighboring states like Colorado and Arizona, who are both dealing with issues of their own regarding closures of racetracks."

But the disparities, according to some horsemen, are too big to ignore.

"Our only concern was the purse money," said Dick Cappelucci, one of the leading trainers in the state of New Mexico. "We thought the purses for the maiden races could be raised and that the overall purse structure could be done better."

As a result of the dispute, Cappelucci and Todd Fincher, who both topped the thoroughbred trainer standings at Sunland Park, will not be represented at SunRay Park when the gates open on Friday.

The elevated purse structure for this season came about after a record-setting season in 2021. 

Last year's racing season, which opened on April 23, 2021, was the first day of live racing at the track in nearly two years. The pandemic shut down the live racing season in 2020 just weeks after live racing was canceled at Sunland Park, near El Paso, Texas due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

More:Live horse racing returns to SunRay Park April 22

And while Albuquerque Downs, Ruidoso Downs and Zia Park all held truncated racing seasons later in 2020 with little to no live attendance, many local and regional horsemen were forced to send their barns to racetracks in states like Arizona, Texas and Louisiana.

The impact of those barns leaving New Mexico racing was massive, and is still having an effect today.

Royal Hot Babe (gray) runs alongside a pony horse during morning training hours, Friday, May 15, 2022 at SunRay Park and Casino.

"Management made it clear back then that our business with these tracks wasn't important," said Fincher. "We had no choice but to find other places to race."

When racing did return to SunRay last year, on-track handle still managed to increase by over 15 percent over the 2019 campaign.

And it wasn't just on-track and handle that saw growth last year. The 18-day stand yielded a 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.

Last year, the opening day program attracted 72 entries for a nine-race card, an average of eight horses per race. 

Friday's opening day card drew an average of nearly 10 horses per race.

"The industry has been dealing with a lot of uncertainty the last couple years, and the fact that we've got a good purse structure and not a lot of that uncertainty, has made for a formula where our meet is a little more attractive this season," Boehm said.

In addition to the likely favorite Mine That Star, trainer Justin Evans will also mark his return to SunRay Park with a pair of runners in the Inaugural Handicap, Limonite and El Chavo Del Ocho.

Evans was one of several trainers who relocated from New Mexico after live racing season shut down in the spring of 2020. He currently is the leading thoroughbred trainer at Turf Paradise in Phoenix and is scheduled to have as many as 30 horses on the SunRay backstretch this season.

The Inaugural Handicap had a scheduled post time of 5:27 p.m.  

For a look at the complete list of entries for Friday's opening day program  check out the track's 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.