SUNLAND PARK – Live racing at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino has seen more its fair share of negative headlines for the better part of 2016.
The outbreak of an equine virus in January shut down live racing for nearly a month. It also forced a quarantine of the backstretch area for nearly two months to prevent further outbreaks, and in some cases, casualties.
This weekend, with the virus virtually eliminated and the backstretch opened for travel, Sunland Park is back in the national headlines for a much better reason.
Sunday’s $415,000 Festival of Racing Stakes is the highlight of a rich weekend, celebrating some of the best thoroughbreds in the state of New Mexico and around the country.
Eight stakes races will run this weekend at Sunland Park, with purse monies approaching $1.2 million.
With the Sunland Derby effectively cancelled this season as a result of the backstretch quarantine, the Festival of Racing Stakes is more than a suitable replacement.
Unlike recent years, when the Sunland Derby was used as an automatic springboard for the winner into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, there will be no Derby points allotted for the winner in the 1 1/8-mile race.
A healthy winner’s purse of nearly $250,000 should adequately make up for that loss.
Trainer Bob Baffert, who has saddled three winners in Sunland Derby, including 2014 winner Chitu, is back again with Collected, the 3-to-1 morning-line favorite in the Festival of Racing Stakes.
A two-time winner in four career starts, Collected is coming off a fourth-place finish in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
The Kentucky-bred son of City Zip won the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park in California on Jan. 9, earning his first stakes win. The 3-year-old has already topped $136,000 in lifetime earnings, and a win on Sunday can go a long way in establishing him as one of the leading sophomores in the country.
Collected, along with jockey Martin Garcia, will break from post eight in the 12-horse field. Also set to go in the Festival of Racing Stakes are a pair of runners from the barn of Justin Evans, the leading thoroughbred trainer in the state. Evans will send out Mine That Bird Stakes winner Concord Fast as well as Bruntino.
The Festival of Racing Stakes is the final race on a nine-race Sunday card, which also features the $200,000 Plum Pretty Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.
Both Baffert and Pletcher appear to hold a strong hand there as well, with Bafferts’s multiple stakes-placer Family Tree listed as the 2-to-1 second choice on the morning line favorite in the 1 1/16 mile event, while Pletcher sends out morning-line favorite Thrilled.
Family Tree will not only be making her first start in 2016, but also her first start for Baffert since coming over from trainer Wayne Catalano’s barn. Family Tree broke her maiden last September on the turf at Kentucky Downs, but finished third in a pair of races last fall at Churchill Downs and Remington Park in Oklahoma City.
Thrilled will also be making her first start this year, but has earned nearly $170,000 while racking up stakes-place efforts at New York’s top racing destinations Saratoga, Belmont Park and Aqueduct.
Other stakes racing action on Sunday includes the return of Dirt Monster, coming off a devastating win in the Budweiser Stakes last month. The son of Line of David has been installed as the 2-to-1 morning-line favorite in the Bill Thomas Memorial Stakes.
The stakes action this weekend starts on Saturday, with the 15th running of the New Mexico State University Handicap.
Listed as the ninth race on the program, the NMSU Handicap will be headlined by morning-line favorite Streaks Bro, who’s hoping to snap a three-race losing streak for trainer Gary Cross.
Streaks Bro is a coming off a second-place finish in last month’s Curribot Handicap over this course. A three-time winner from 16 lifetime starts, the son of Elijah’s Song hasn’t been in the winner’s circle since November at Zia Park.
Streaks Bro will break from post seven in the 11-horse field for Saturday’s NMSU Handicap, which has a scheduled post time of 5:05 p.m.
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.