12/09/2009 12:00AM

Graded status for Sunland Derby a major feat

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Sunland Park has never opened a meet on a higher note. Last week the track, which begins a 77-date season on Friday, was awarded Grade 3 status for its Sunland Park Derby. The race is the first graded offering for Thoroughbreds in New Mexico, and with its new status track officials said the purse will be increased from $600,000 to $800,000 when it is run on March 28.

"This has been our goal for eight years," said Harold Payne, the general manager of Sunland. "This was the purpose of the race from Day One."

Sunland Park owner Stan Fulton created the Sunland Derby in 2003, and each year put about $200,000 to $400,000 of his own money into the purse, Payne said. There have been different bonuses attached over seven runnings, but this meet the focus will simply be on graded offerings, said Payne.

"The winner would certainly earn enough money to get into the Kentucky Derby, and possibly the second-place finisher," he said. "The winner will get $400,000, and second is worth $175,000, so we could have one or two starters eligible."

The Sunland Derby turned out to be the key prep for this year's Kentucky Derby, with the race's fourth-place finisher, Mine That Bird, going on post a 50-1 upset. Mine That Bird and his connections are being honored at Sunland with a lifesize, fiberglass replica of the horse at the entrance to the track. Sunland has also named one of its simulcast parlor rooms for Mine That Bird and stocked it with memorabilia provided by his connections, said Payne.

"We plan on giving Mine that Bird a lot of credit," Payne said. "We feel he put us in a position to get graded."

Chip Woolley, who trains Mine That Bird, will have a 30-horse stable at Sunland, which is a regular stop for him. He said the Kentucky Derby winner is being freshened at Double Eagle Ranch in Roswell, N.M. Other trainers with divisions at the meet, which is for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, will include Chris Hartman, who has won the last three Sunland titles; Jeff Mullins, who is based in Southern California; Henry Dominguez, a mainstay in New Mexico; Steve Asmussen, the leading Thoroughbred trainer in North America, and Paul Jones, the leading Quarter Horse trainer in North America.

Purses are projected at $220,000 to $225,000 a day, which is down about 8 percent from last season's all-time high distribution, Payne said. He said the reduction, which impacts overnight and trial races, is due to the impact the economy has had on simulcast and slots play at Sunland. The track operates a 720-machine casino. The stakes program remains in tact, however, with 31 stakes for Thoroughbreds led by the Sunland Derby.

The 1 1/8-mile race will anchor a card of six stakes worth $1.4 million on March 28. The program will be the richest of the meet and it will also feature the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks, which last meet was won by future Grade 1 Acorn winner Gabby's Golden Gal. Other races of significance at the track include the $100,000 Borderland Derby at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 27, and the Grade ', $350,000 Championship for Quarter Horses on Dec. 26.

In changes, Sunland will offer a super high five wager on its last race of the day. The bet, which has a 50-cent minimum and features a carryover pool, requires handicappers to pick the first five finishers of the race in order. Sunland has also upgraded the digits on its tote board and installed a new message board with full-color animation, said Payne.

Mike Shamburg is the new racing secretary at Sunland, while Jerry Rice, the former wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, will be the guest speaker at the United Blood Services gala at the track the night before the Sunland Derby.

SUNLAND PARK AT A GLANCE

* Racing: 77 days; Friday through April 20, 2010; racing Friday through Sunday and on Tuesdays, except Christmas, Dec. 25; special Wednesday cards on Dec. 23 and Feb. 17

* Post time: 12:25 p.m. Mountain until Feb. 23; 12:55 p.m. through the close of the meet

* Highlights:

Dec. 29 Riley Allison Futurity 2YO $100,000
Feb. 27 Borderland Derby 3YO 100,000
March 28 Harry W. Henson Handicap F&M, 3YO & Up 100,000
March 28 Sunland Park Oaks 3YO F 100,000
March 28 Sunland Derby 3YO 800,000
April 18 Sunland Park Handicap 3YO & Up 100,000

* Simulcasting: Daily, except Christmas

* Gaming: 720 slot machines

* Admission: Free

* Parking: Free

* Phone: (575) 874-5200

* Address: 1200 Futurity Drive, Sunland Park, NM 88063

* Internet: