09/20/2005 11:00PM

Inaugural meet opens

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Back in 2003, four groups were bidding to open a racetrack in rural southeastern New Mexico. On Friday, that track will become a reality when Zia Park in Hobbs opens its inaugural 44-date meet for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses.

Zia, a racino built at a cost of $45 million to $50 million, has been operating a slots parlor since November. The track is the fifth to open in the state, joining Ruidoso Downs, Sunland Park, Sun Ray Park, and The Downs at Albuquerque.

R.D. Hubbard, the former owner of Hollywood Park, is the majority partner in Zia. The track is located four miles from the West Texas border, and its primary markets will be Lubbock and the Odessa-Midland area, all in Texas. Hobbs itself is only a town of 30,000, but there are more than 750,000 people within a two-hour drive of the track, according to Phil Ziegler, marketing director of Zia.

"It's a huge section of the country that hasn't had any racetrack or casino and now they have both," he said. "If you look back at the racetracks that have opened in the past several years, there aren't that many examples of a racetrack entering a brand new market. That's very unique for the people in this region."

Response to the meet has been strong. Ziegler said the track has already sold the 80 boxes of seats and more than 40 tables that make up its Turf Club.

"They sold out within a week and a half, for the whole season," he said.

Zia's slots casino has more than 650 machines, and horsemen get 20 percent of the revenues. That has helped push purses for the inaugural meet to an approximate daily average of $230,000.

Ziegler said on most days, about 60 percent of the card will be made up of races for Thoroughbreds. The track, which has a one-mile dirt oval, has 1,500 stalls, and all are full, said Ziegler.

Among the trainers represented with entries opening day are top New Mexico-based horsemen Jon Arnett, Fred Danley, Henry Dominguez, Joel Marr, and Eddie Willis.

Casey Lambert, who has not ridden since he sustained a broken jaw and punctured lung in a spill at Lone Star Park on July 4, is named on horses Friday. Among his mounts are Captain Mallory, the probable favorite for the $50,000 Premier Stakes.

The six-furlong race is the first of 32 stakes worth $2.4 million this meet, with races for both Thorough-breds and Quarter Horses.

Captain Mallory last raced on Aug. 21, romping by 7 1/2 lengths in a starter allowance at Louisiana Downs. He earned a Beyer Figure of 102, which is the highest last-race number in the Premier.

The chief threat appears to be the Dominguez-trained entry of Beyond Brilliant and Baldwin County.

Other stakes of note during the season will include the $1 million New Mexico Cup on Nov. 6, a program of 11 stakes for New Mexico-breds.

At a glance: Zia Park

RACING SCHEDULE: 44 days; Friday through Dec. 4; racing Fridays to Mondays. There is a special Thursday card on Thanksgiving, Nov. 24.

POST TIME: 12:30 p.m. Mountain, except Nov. 6 and Nov. 24, when first post is noon.

HIGHLIGHTS: $1 million New Mexico Cup, a program of 11 stakes for New Mexico-bred Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses on Nov. 6; $100,000 Zia Park Derby, Dec. 3; $200,000 Hobbs America Futurity for Quarter Horses, Oct. 16.

ADMISSIONS: General, free

PARKING: General, free

LOCATION: 3901 W. Millen Drive in Hobbs, N.M., right off Lovington Highway.

SIMULCASTING: Daily.

PHONE: (888) ZIA PARK, or (505) 492-7000

INTERNET: www.blackgoldcasino.net