Sunland Park opens for rich racing season

Steve Bortstein
For The Daily Times

SUNLAND PARK — A rich stakes schedule worth more than $5 million in purse money will headline the 2015-16 racing season at Sunland Park, which begins Friday for a 72-day meeting.

A total of 45 stakes races — including the $800,000 Sunland Derby on March 20 and next weekend’s $350,000 Championship — will serve as a few of the highlights of what should be another strong season of quarter horse and thoroughbred action.

Last season, Firing Line used an emphatic victory in the Sunland Derby as a springboard towards a second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. He lost to eventual Triple Crown conqueror and likely Horse of the Year, American Pharoah.

Since the Sunland Derby was first run 14 years ago, the race has been a major national prep for three-year-olds pointed to the Triple Crown. In 2009, New Mexico-based Mine That Bird ran fourth in the Sunland Derby and won the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in his next start.

Last season’s leading thoroughbred trainer Justin Evans, who currently ranks 12th in the nation among leading trainers, will likely get stiff competition for that title this season with the arrival of Karl Broberg.

Broberg comes into this season as the nation’s leading thoroughbred trainer. He is bringing in a barn full of runners to spice up the competition.

“I’m excited about having (Broberg) at Sunland,” Evans said. “Competition is good. He plays the game just like I do, in terms of claiming a lot of horses. He brings in new horses. Bringing a guy like him to town adds some spice to the game and it helps it out a lot as well.”

Both Broberg and Evans will have multiple starters on opening weekend, which begins with a strong nine-race program Friday at 12:45 p.m.

Last season’s leading thoroughbred rider Ry Eikleberry will also be returning to defend his title this season. Eikleberry dominated the thoroughbred competition here last season, winning 86 times, and 24 more times than Alfredo Juarez Jr.

Also set to return to the saddle this season at Sunland is Glen Murphy, who is just one win shy of career win No. 3,000 among thoroughbred jockeys.

On the quarter horse scene, Wes Giles will be back to defend his title along with Esgar Ramirez, who also is coming off a strong showing in which he captured the riding title at the recently completed season at Zia Park in Hobbs.

Giles won 25 races with 106 starters at Sunland last season, while Ramirez is an eight-time Sunland Park Quarter Horse champion jockey.

Racing at Sunland Park will include 22 stakes races restricted to New Mexico-breds, 14 for thoroughbreds and eight for quarter horses.

Sunland Park’s season will offer live racing primarily on a Friday-through-Sunday and Tuesday schedule. The lone exception will be a dark day on Friday, Dec. 25 for Christmas, but there will be live racing on the following Monday, Dec. 28.

Daily first post time will be 12:45 p.m. from opening day until Feb. 15, and 1:30 p.m. from Feb. 19 through closing day, which is April 19.

Opening weekend action at Sunland will feature four stakes races, including Saturday’s $85,000 Jess Burner Memorial Handicap for older state-bred quarter horses racing 400 yards. It will also include the $65,000 KLAQ Handicap, a five-furlong event for older thoroughbred sprinters.

Sunday’s stakes headliners include the $85,000 New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap at 6 furlongs and the $85,000 Johnie L Jamison Handicap.

Firing Line, winner of the 2015 Sunland Derby, is ridden by jockey Gary Stevens on March 22. The $800,000 Sunland Derby will once again be one of the highlight races of the new racing season, which begins today near El Paso, Texas.

Steve Bortstein hosts "First Sports" and "The Fast Track" on Fox Sports 1340 AM and 93.9 FM and on iHeartRadio. He serves as paddock show host at SunRay Park & Casino and is a voting member of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Follow him @fox1340am on Twitter.