FARMINGTON — A total of 98 horses have been entered for Friday’s opening day program of the 2022 Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred racing season at SunRay Park and Casino.
The highlight of the opening day card is the Inaugural Handicap, set for older Thoroughbreds competing over 6 1/2 furlongs. A field of nine was entered for the opening, which will be the ninth race of a 10-race card, headlined by multiple stakes winner Mine That Star.
A son of Kentucky-bred Pioneerof The Nile, Mine That Star is a half-brother to 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, trained by Nancy Summers and scheduled to be ridden by Kelsi Purcell for owners Judge Lanier Racing.
The return of live racing brings with it excitement for fans at the track and the hope that jockeys will pack the gates to provide attendees with a multitude of quality viewing and betting opportunities.
And following the success of a recently concluded Sunland Park racing season that saw increases in both track attendance and driving, there is reason for optimism.
Overnight purses are higher this year than last season at SunRay, with an average purse more than $4,000 higher than in 2021, which was one of the most successful seasons in track history.
And while the opening day numbers in the entry box are impressive, all the excitement may take a hit if an ongoing feud between jockeys and track management wreaks havoc on the 18-day season, which runs through May 29.
The dispute appears to be related to disparities in prize money distribution between certain types of races over the course of the season.
The maiden claim races, in which non-winners compete against each other and jockeys can buy them before entering the starting gate, will compete for prizes ranging from $9,000 to $16,000 during the first two weeks of the season, while the allotment races, usually for winners, will compete for prizes ranging from $43,000 to $55,000.
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In fact, stocks are significantly higher across the board than they were on opening day last year. Average purse money available in non-stakes races on Fridays is more than $21,200, compared to nearly $17,000 per race last year.
“Stocks are higher this season than they’ve been in five years,” general manager Brad Boehm said. “And we’ve gotten a lot of interest from barns in neighboring states like Colorado and Arizona, who are dealing with their own issues regarding racetrack closures.”
But the disparities, according to some riders, are too great to ignore.
“Our only concern was the money in the purse,” said Dick Cappelucci, one of the top trainers in the state of New Mexico. “We think that the purses for the opening races could be increased and that the overall structure of the purses could be improved.”
As a result of the dispute, Cappelucci and Todd Fincher, who led the Thoroughbred trainer standings at Sunland Park, will not be represented at SunRay Park when the gates open on Friday.
The elevated portfolio structure for this season came after a record 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 2020 live racing season just weeks after live racing at Sunland Park near El Paso, Texas, was canceled due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Plus:Live horse racing returns to SunRay Park on April 22
And while Albuquerque Downs, Ruidoso Downs and Zia Park held truncated racing seasons later in 2020 with little to no live attendance, many local and regional jockeys were forced to send their stables to racetracks in states like Arizona, Texas and Louisiana.
The impact of those barns leaving New Mexico racing was huge, and it still has an effect today.
“Management made it clear at the time that our business with these tracks was not important,” Fincher said. “We had no choice but to look for other places to compete.”
When racing returned to SunRay last year, on-track handling still managed to increase by more than 15 percent during the 2019 campaign.
And it wasn’t just track and handling that saw growth last year. The 18-day stand produced a 123 percent gain in total handling. SunRay Park’s live races found a whole new national simulcast audience, finishing with 137 percent compared to a 17-day season in 2019.
Last year, the opening day program drew 72 entries for a nine-race card, an average of eight horses per race.
Friday’s opening day card averaged nearly 10 horses per race.
“The industry has been dealing with a lot of uncertainty over the last couple of years, and the fact that we have a good portfolio structure and not a lot of uncertainty has created a formula where our meeting is a little bit more attractive this season,” he said. Boehm.
In addition to 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 the live racing season closed in the spring of 2020. He is currently the leading Thoroughbred trainer at Turf Paradise in Phoenix and is scheduled to have up to 30 horses in the home stretch of SunRay East station.
The Inaugural Handicap had a scheduled posting time of 5:27pm
For the full ticket list for Friday’s opening day show, check out the track’s official page on Equibase.com.
Steve Bortstein can be reached by email at SBortstein@Gannett.com, via Twitter @DTSBortstein, or by phone at (505) 635-2680. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.