Saturday, December 5, 2009

Column on Sunland Park Racetrack

By Felix Chavez
El Paso Times — It wasn’t long ago that Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino was merely an afterthought on the national radar.
Sure it had its local traditions, familiar names to the area and some decent racing.
But the track had little appeal to it on a national basis. But a commitment to the sport by the state, the racetrack and the owners and trainers has made the racetrack the premiere spot in the state to watch a race and it is now a player on the national level.
On Thursday, the Sunland Derby, which is the featured race during the meet, was granted a Grade 3 status. For the average fan, what does that mean?
It means the $800,000 race, which ranks as one of the nation’s richest Kentucky Derby prep races, will attract a very good field and will likely send its winner to the 2010 Run for the Roses.
Over the seven previous Sunland Derbies (formerly the WinStar Derby), the race has drawn some big-name jockeys (Garrett Gomez, Pat Day, Victor Espinoza), high-profile trainers (Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill) and credible horses (Mine That Bird, Kelly Leak, Thor’s Echo).
But until Mine That Bird’s run to the winner’s circle at this past spring’s Kentucky Derby, the Sunland Derby had not found enough support to earn a graded race.
With the addition of the graded standing, owners and trainers can now point to the Sunland Derby as an important step to the Derby and not just a race to come in and run for the monetary value of the race.
We’ve seen the likes of O’Neill and Baffert enter horses in the Sunland Derby. Now, it won’t be out of the question to see the likes of Todd Pletcher, Bill Mott or Richard Mandella send one or more horses to Sunland Park.
Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino officials have worked hard to make the Sunland Derby mean something to the racing world and with Thursday’s announcement that it had earned graded earnings, the hard work finally paid off.
There might be some who believe that a graded status doesn’t mean much for the local contingent at the racetrack, I’d have to disagree on that point.
Because the Sunland Derby has finally earned that next step in becoming a national player, the consistent and longtime performers at the Sunland track can take some pride in helping the New Mexico track become a major player in the world of horse racing.
The past several racing seasons have produced some extraordinary moments at the Southern New Mexico track, many of which will never be forgotten.
But now the track has a chance to make even greater memories and with a graded race, it has a chance to become not only a consistent player on the national scene, but a force to be reckoned with.

Felix Chavez can be reached at fchavez@elpasotimes.com; 546-6374