Disease outbreak threatens Sunland Park track

Felix F. Chávez
El Paso Times

SUNLAND PARK – The brisk-paced daily hustle and bustle that usually engulfs Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino during the live racing season was missing again on Monday.


In its place was yellow tape cautioning trainers, owners, jockeys, fans and tourists to stay out of the stables, where an equine virus has spread, forcing the racetrack to shutter racing for at least two weeks. The racing was stopped on Friday.

“This has been hard on everyone,” trainer Justin Evans said. “It’s a situation where lots of good, hard-working people may go bankrupt. There is no money coming in from purses, but we still have to pay the bills. We’re hopeful that racing will be back soon, but there is the possibility that this could last for some time. We just want the horses to be safe and secure, that is the most important thing right now.”

A two-week hiatus will impact the Sunland Park community, the racetrack and those who work in the horse racing industry.

Horse racing is big in New Mexico, particularly right now at Sunland Park, which is in the middle of its season. While no economic impact figures were available for the Sunland Park racetrack, in Ruidoso, the track’s economic impact to that community is around $45 million per year.

Those who depend on racing at Sunland Park say the impact is just as big here. The average payout in purses per day at the track during the four days of live racing each week range from $200,000 to $250,000. Last Saturday, the $65,000 guaranteed Winsham Lad Handicap was canceled and on Sunday the $85,000 Enchantress Stakes was not run. This weekend, two showcase races were on the slate – the Riley Allison Derby ($100,000 added) and the El Paso Times Handicap ($65,000 guaranteed). Neither will run.

The Riley Allison Derby was to be a potential prep race for the March 20, $800,000 Sunland Derby, the track’s biggest race of the year. The Sunland Derby is a key prep race for 3-year-old horses on their way to the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the thoroughbred Triple Crown. Now, even that major local race might be in jeopardy.

“Everyone is taking precautions and trying to keep their spirits up,” Evans said. “This could have long-ranging effects on the meet, perhaps even the Sunland Derby. If you are a trainer or owner, would you want to risk bringing your horse here even if there has been clearance given to resume racing? There could still be a chance that your horse could be quarantined.

“We all want our horses to be out there competing. I love the competitive atmosphere, and I know I missed having my horses run over the weekend, I missed the buzz. I may have to go to Turf Paradise in Arizona to claim some horses and try to run some there.”

If more days are lost due to the virus, other key races could be affected, including the $100,000 Mine That Bird Derby and the $75,000 Island Fashion Stakes, both on Feb. 20. The Mine That Bird Derby also serves as a prep race for the Sunland Derby and the Island Fashion Stakes serves as a key prep race for the $200,000 Sunland Oaks, held on March 20.

“We are continuing to monitor the situation and we are working with many people to ensure the safety of the horses,” said Ethan Linder, the director of marketing at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino. “We have lots of agencies working together and we are taking a proactive approach to protecting the horses.”

The 72-day season at Sunland Park began on Dec. 18. Earlier in the meet, the racetrack lost two days of racing due to severe weather, although the New Mexico Racing Commission approved two dates in April to make up for those lost days.

On Friday, live racing was suspended for at least 14 days because five horses were found to have the equine herpesvirus or EHV-1. Currently, no horse from the racetrack’s stable or from the nearby training centers Frontera, Jovi and Lazy S are allowed to leave the area, and no horses are allowed to come in.

Felix F. Chávez may be reached at 915-546-6167;; @Fchavezeptimes on Twitter.