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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Age of Enchantment For Sunland Park

For some, the term “racino” brings to mind everything that is wrong with horse racing today: in states where tracks are built merely as an inconvenient necessity to acquiring a gaming license, not much effort is put into maintaining the physical plant or providing fans with top quality racing. Sunland Park in New Mexico seems to be bunking that trend, and certainly over the past years has grown in terms of its importance as a testing ground for 3-year-olds intent on national prominence. For local fans, Sunland Derby Week has become the second biggest event in the El Paso area (only surpassed by the Sun Bowl), with a series of festivities leading up to record attendance and record handle on track.

Dustin Dix, Director of Racing Operations at Sunland Park, graciously agreed to answer some questions I posed to him about the track’s rising prominence on the Triple Crown trail, and future expectations for New Mexico racing.

VG: Over the past three years, more Classic winners have emerged out of the G3 Sunland Derby than the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial combined—a pretty amazing fact considering the history of those races. Congratulations! What factors do you attribute for the rising prominence of the Sunland Derby as a Triple Crown prep race? 

DD:  We have kept our date of the race pretty consistent over the years (the last Sunday in March).  We spend a lot of money maintaining our dirt track, and Sunland has been a very progressive place to work.  We are accredited by the NTRA Safety Alliance; this shows the owners and trainers of Triple Crown candidates that we are serious about the quality and integrity of racing.  We have tweaked the Sunland Derby by changing the distance (at the suggestion of horsemen including Bob Baffert) and by adding more money to the race.  

VG: Certain trainers and owners have gravitated to Sunland as a stop on the Derby and Oaks trail over the past several years—WinStar, Bob Baffert, and George and Lori Hall and their trainer Kelly Breen certainly come to mind. Is there some special connection that draws each of them to Sunland? How do you, as a director of racing, develop interest among owners and trainers to make the trip that seems a little off the beaten path?

DD: In the early years of the WinStar/Sunland Derby, we always took good care of any owner’s or trainer’s needs, and they were treated very well.  Before we were a graded race it was difficult to get high quality horses in the Sunland Derby, but we’d send letters to horsemen who had 3-year-olds with graded earnings telling them about the bonus they would receive if they won the Sunland Derby.  Now that we are graded, trainers must send their best.  Yet, we are always working to improve the exposure of our big race. Florida horses are ones that we are trying to target, but West Coast trainers have been very supportive of our racing program, particularly Bob Baffert who has been a great ambassador for Sunland Park. 

VG: How special was Mine That Bird’s Kentucky Derby success, and what did it mean for Sunland?

DD: A lot of our success for the Sunland Derby can be credited to Mine That Bird, trainer Chip Woolley, and owners Dr. Leonard Blach and Mark Allen.  If they had shipped to Lone Star and run in the Lone Star Derby instead of the Kentucky Derby we probably won’t be talking about the Sunland Derby. The MTB camp had enough guts to run in the Kentucky Derby, and he showed he wasn’t a fluke by his performance in the Preakness and Belmont. Now we have a non-smoking simulcast room that is called the Mine That Bird Room where much of his memorabilia is displayed, and there’s a statue of MTB as you walk into the main entrance.  Last season we had a Chip Woolley bobblehead day as well.

VG: In past years, the Sunland Park Oaks has also produced some outstanding fillies—multiple G1 winners Island Fashion, Tough Tiz’s Sis, and Gabby’s Golden Gal, to name but a few. This year Plum Pretty followed up her dominating Sunland Park Oaks performance with an impressive win in the G1 Kentucky Oaks. Why isn’t this race a graded stakes yet? Do you think Plum Pretty’s win can help propel the race forward like Mine That Bird did the Sunland Derby?

DD: We are disappointed that the Sunland Park Oaks has not been graded.  I went to the graded stakes meeting in Lexington several years ago, and what they are looking for is more depth for the race.  We have had some great fillies win the race, but we need better quality, top to bottom.  There seems to be a lot of 3-year-old filly races around the same time as our race and our purse is only $200,000.  We are trying to pursue sponsorship to increase the purse of the Oaks in hopes of attracting more quality.  

VG: The record-setting New Mexico-bred Peppers Pride certainly generated a lot of excitement with her undefeated 19-race win streak, and brought a much attention to New Mexico racing. How long do you think it will be before we see a New Mexico-bred seriously contest the Kentucky Derby? How has New Mexico breeding and racing been changed by the subsequent success of Sunland-raced horses in recent years?

DD: The overall quality of our racing program has improved dramatically over the past ten years.  Our horsemen go to other states and compete very well—at Remington, Lone Star, and Prairie Meadows to name but a few.   I am not sure if or when a New Mexico bred will seriously contest the Kentucky Derby, but this next season will be my tenth at Sunland Park, and if I had told my boss when I was hired that we would have a horse run here and then go on to win a Breeders’ Cup race (Thor’s Echo), the Kentucky Derby (Mine That Bird), the Kentucky Oaks (Plum Pretty) and the Belmont (Ruler on Ice), I would have been randomly drug tested.  The results of these races show that anything is possible.
We have a great team here at Sunland.  Our owner Stan Fulton, GM Harold Payne and our racing managers are passionate and care about horse racing; we take a lot of pride in the success of Sunland horses.  I like to think Sunland Park is a good blueprint for what a racino should do to improve the racing product.  We spend a lot of money on improvements, and it has had a positive result with the quality of racing, field size, handle, and breeding in New Mexico.

Mine That Bird statue at Sunland Park, courtesy of Sue Bronx