12/10/2008 12:00AM

Big push to get Sunland Derby a grade

Robbi Large/Coady Photography
Undefeated Peppers Pride will seek her 19th consecutive win Sunday at Sunland Park.

Sunland Park is pushing for graded status for its $800,000 Sunland Derby and has made aggressive changes to the 1 1/8-mile race that will highlight a 77-date mixed meet for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses that opens Friday.

The New Mexico track's 50th season will get off to a rousing start with the undefeated Peppers Pride scheduled to make what could be the final start of her career Sunday. She will be looking for her 19th straight win when she starts in the $125,000 New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap.

"We're very excited about her running opening weekend," said Harold Payne, general manager of Sunland.

The meet's other focal point is the Sunland Derby, to be run March 29. Formerly the WinStar Derby, it has been renamed because WinStar Farm's multiyear sponsorship contract has ended, track officials said. The purse of the Sunland Derby has been increased from $600,000 to $800,000, and bonuses have been put in place that give the race a potential value of $1 million.

If the Sunland Derby winner has a Grade 1 victory to his credit, the horse would earn a $200,000 bonus. Another incentive offers a $100,000 bonus to a winner who has any previous graded earnings. A horse who wins the Grade 1 bonus is not be eligible for the second bonus.

The increased purse and derby bonus incentives are intended to lure the best field possible to slots-rich Sunland, which introduced the Sunland Derby in 2003 with a purse of $500,000.

"Hopefully, this gets us graded eventually," Payne said. "The depth of the field is one of the criteria and horses with prior graded earnings is another, so a deep enough field with enough graded earnings would enhance our chances of getting graded. That's our theory."

Sunland will run the derby two weeks later this meet as a means of giving 3-year-olds more time to build graded resumes. The Sunland Derby will be the richest Thoroughbred stakes in the history of New Mexico, and it will share a card with four other stakes, including the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks.

There will be a gala benefiting United Blood Services the night before the richest card of the meet, and NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell will be the keynote speaker. Payne said noted equine artist Fred Stone also will be on hand at the March 28 event, to unveil a painting of Peppers Pride that was commissioned by her owner, Joe Allen.

The Sunland Derby is part of a 30-race stakes schedule for Thoroughbreds, while the Quarter Horse stakes program is highlighted by the Grade 1, $400,000 Championship on Dec. 27.

Purses this meet are projected to exceed $250,000 a day and they have lured divisions from such trainers as Steve Asmussen, who leads the nation in wins and earnings, and Jeff Mullins, a mainstay in Southern California. Mullins made a last-minute decision to come to Sunland and has more than 20 horses stabled at a training center near the track. Mullins won the Sunland Park Oaks with Sweet Fourty in 2006.

"The money is getting better, and you can train a little cheaper," Mullins said.

Mullins said newcomer Israel Ocampo is one of the riders he'll be using at Sunland. The colony also will include Luis Contreras as well as Ken Tohill, who has won the last five Thoroughbred titles at Sunland.

The training ranks also include Chris Hartman, two-time defending trainer at Sunland.

The track has made more than $500,000 in grandstand improvements since the meet concluded last spring. There is a new canopy on the main entrance, Payne said, and the parking lot has been resurfaced. There are 105 new high-definition television sets around the grandstand.

Sunland's signal will have an increased presence this meet in New York, as well as in Las Vegas and California. Payne is hoping for a strong season.

"With the way the economy is, and the way the other tracks have been doing, if we could come close to our previous season in handle, I would be very happy," he said.

An average of $812,524 a day was bet on Sunland's races from all sources last meet, up 5.5 percent from 2006. The meet will continue through April 21.