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Sunland Park Winter Meet Postponed At Least 30 Days

James Murphy
by in Horses on
  • Sunland Park has postponed the start of their winter/spring race meet by at least 30 days due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The New Mexico Racing Commission voted unanimously to allow the delay to be revisited in January.
  • Zia Park is currently the only track running in New Mexico.

A special meeting of the New Mexico Racing Commission was held late last week with the main order of business the status of the Sunland Park winter/spring race meet. The commission voted unanimously to allow the track to delay the start of the meet which was to begin on December 26 by 30 days. The status of Sunland’s meet will be revisited at a January meeting.

Sunland was scheduled to begin their winter/spring race meet on the day after Christmas and run 42 dates through March 30, 2021. When the dates were awarded, however, they were done so with the proviso that they are ‘subject to change’ due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Sunland’s location is particularly tenuous–it is located 15 minutes from El Paso, Texas which has been hit extremely hard by the coronavirus pandemic resulting in approximately 1,000 deaths. The track is actually located much closer to El Paso than to the nearest city of any size in New Mexico (Las Cruces, approximately 45 miles away) and is just 35 minutes from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.

New Mexico is currently under a statewide public health order requiring significant restrictions to combat the COVID-19 pandemic including the closure of all ‘non essential’ businesses. At the same time, there is a county by county criteria that has created a tiered system within the state (more about that in a moment). New Mexico currently has the fourth highest COVID risk level of any US state which is measured by calculating the daily new cases per 100,000 people on a moving 7 day average. That results in a average daily case tally of 97.8 cases per day per 100K people or an aggregate daily new case average of 2,050.9.

The spring 2019 meet at Sunland Park ended early in mid-March at the onset of the pandemic. This necessitated the cancellation of the track’s marquee race, the Grade 3 Sunland Derby which also serves as a qualifying event for the Kentucky Derby.

What’s curious is that New Mexico’s Zia Park race track has reopened. Zia Park is located in Hobbes, New Mexico near the border with Texas and just four hours (248 miles) Northeast of Sunland. Zia Park had been closed from November 13 to November 30 when the elevated COVID-19 restrictions were first enacted.

Reports indicated that Zia has received permission to reopen under New Mexico’s new tiered ‘county by county’ risk system. The criteria for ranking a county in one of three tiers–red, yellow or green–looks to be very situational and arbitrary but is based primarily on per-capita incidence of new COVID-19 cases and average COVID-19 test positivity rates. Zia is in Lea County while Sunland is in Doña Ana County. It’s unclear from data provided by the state of New Mexico how the situation in Lea County is significantly better than that in Doña Ana County. The data below is from December 2, 2020–the date that Zia reopened:

The New Mexico Racing Commission is on board with this–in fact, at the same meeting where they voted to delay the reopening of Sunland they voted to increase purses and add dates at Zia Park:

The commission on Friday also approved increasing purses by 30 percent at Zia Park. The track also will run an additional race on each of its final six cards, Dec. 14-16 and Dec. 21-23. First post will be a half-hour earlier on those dates, at 11:30 a.m. Mountain.

Don’t get me wrong–having one track available in New Mexico for horsemen to run at is preferable to having none. But based on the COVID-19 data it’s hard to figure out why Zia is running while Sunland isn’t. A more overreaching question concerns the nature of horse racing itself during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s difficult to see how running horses at a track with attendance limited only to ‘essential personnel’ has any risk of exacerbating the public spread situation.

Of course, the request to delay came from the track itself which further clouds the situation. Zia Park is owned by gaming giant Penn National while Sunland Park is independently owned. Maybe Penn is better able to shoulder the increased costs of running race cards without fans in attendance? Maybe they’ve got more ‘pull’ with state agencies? Maybe they have worked out a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Sunland to allow them to run as the only track in the state for the time being?

The concern is that it’ll hurt the race meet at Sunland when it is able to run–assuming that it doesn’t end up getting cancelled altogether. The horse racing website Paulick Report quoted a conversation between trainers Todd Fincher and Justin Evans who spoke to the El Paso Times’ Felix Chavez about the status of the Sunland meet:

The unknown future of live racing at Sunland Park has forced some of its prominent trainers to look elsewhere for their winter seasons. Todd Fincher and Justin Evans have both run horses at Sunland Park for several years and are now relocating to Turf Paradise in Arizona and Sam Houston Park in Texas.

“We’ll spend a good portion of the winter in Arizona,” Evans said to El Paso Times’ Felix Chavez. “I’ll look at Sam Houston as well for some stakes races. I’ll keep my New Mexico bred horses ready in New Mexico if Sunland Park does open. It’s been tough on everyone. Some jockeys are headed to Arizona as well. My wife Vanessa is going to be agent for a few jockeys such as Frank Reyes, Luis Negron and Jimmy Coates.”

“It’s been a difficult time for so many in this industry,” Fincher added. “I’m fortunate to have been granted 24 stalls at Sam Houston and will have some run at Remington Park in Oklahoma as well. But I really believe we could have run in New Mexico and done it the right way. People are getting out of the business and it’s tough to see that happen to good people.”

Also worth noting that the casino at Sunland Park has been closed since March which no doubt has further hurt their financial position. Hard to say what is going on at Sunland but any decision that forces top trainers, jockeys and horses to head out of state looks on the surface to be somewhat short sighted.

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