11/16/2006 1:00AM

The local color is greenbacks


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - You know it's the quiet time of the year when New Mexico makes national racing news twice in a week.

First came the announcement that the Penn National Gaming group of racetrack/casinos had agreed to purchase the Zia Park and Black Gold Casino complex, located in the eastern New Mexico town of Hobbs, from a partnership that includes former Hollywood Park owner R.D. Hubbard. The price is $200 million.

This qualifies as a classic case of the quick turnaround, since Zia Park is in the midst of only its second season of operation. The paint was dry, barely, and already it is under new management. But according to Bruce Rimbo, one of the original Zia Park partners and a longtime associate of Hubbard's racing ventures, the place wasn't really for sale until the Penn National people paid a visit last summer.

"When we built it we thought we'd run it for a long time," Rimbo said this week from his office at Ruidoso Downs. "They actually came through just to look at the place, since they are getting ready to build some new stuff of their own. They liked what they saw - they're using the same architect at Penn National that we used - and then started asking questions. Eventually, they offered us a good price, and we said yeah, let's go forward."

Penn National Gaming, based in Wyomissing, Pa., usually flies under the radar of the louder, more headline-grabbing racetrack/gaming companies like Magna Entertainment Corp. and Churchill Downs Inc. If the Zia Park deal goes through, PNG will be adding the New Mexico brand of Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse sport to its Thoroughbred properties at Charles Town and Penn National, along with its Standardbred facilities at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey, Raceway Park in Ohio, and Bangor Raceway in Maine.

Penn National Gaming also owns a Pennsylvania offtrack betting network and a dozen stand-alone casinos, in places like Baton Rouge, Lawrenceville, Joliet, Sioux City and Black Hawk, in Colorado. The company proudly lays claim to operating 21,000 slot machines nationwide.

Whether the sale of Zia Park means good things for the New Mexico racing industry remains to be seen. In fact, after less than two seasons as part of the state circuit - alongside Ruidoso, Sunland Park, Albuquerque, and Sun Ray - the Zia Park impact could still be considered found money, offering purses and opportunities that simply did not exist before it opened in 2005.

The average distribution in overnight purses for the first Zia meet was just under $80,000 a day, for 44 days (more than $130,000 when stakes are included). Obviously, it would be easy to get used to such a bump in cash flow real fast. Penn National officials have embarked upon a PR-conscious round of reassurances that business will continue as usual, stopping first at Zia Park itself.

"They met with our employees yesterday," Rimbo said, "telling them nothing would change and things would go forward just as they are. After they close on the purchase of a company, their policy is that employees stay in place for at least a year. As they told our employees, they obviously wouldn't have been interested in buying the place if it were not working well and working right.

"They have not met with the racing commission yet, but I'm sure they'll convey the same message that they did to the employees," Rimbo added. "We've already entered into some good agreements here at Ruidoso to share equipment with Zia Park, and share some personnel, that should be beneficial to both parties."

Of course, such promises have been heard before, and yet racetracks are regularly shuttered, resold, or parceled off in bits and pieces after acquisition by corporate entities. As one of many R.D. Hubbard gaming enterprises, Zia Park was hardly a family-owned independent. But it did open a new territory for Thoroughbreds, and it benefits from all the local charm the town of Hobbs can muster.

A lot of it was on display last Sunday, when Zia Park offered more than $1.2 million in Thoroughbred purses on its showcase day for New Mexico-breds. The star of the program was, as advertised, Rocky Gulch, who came through with a gritty win in the $212,100 New Mexico Cup Classic to become racing's newest millionaire.

Millionaires, of course, come a dime a dozen these days, but Rocky Gulch has earned his the hard way, with 17 wins in 31 starts over the course of four campaigns. The bulk of his haul has come at the expense of fellow New Mexicans, although he did hit the board in open company in both the Borderland Derby and the WinStar Derby at Sunland Park in 2004.

"It was a great day," Rimbo said of last Sunday. "That Rocky is a tough little bugger. He stuck his head to the front halfway through the stretch and battled it out. His jockey, Travis Cunningham, was crying in the winner's circle."

Rocky Gulch still has a ways to go before he can enjoy the reputation of such New Mexico natives as the Quarter Horse champions Easy Jet and Go Man Go, or of the Thoroughbred star Bold Ego, who won the 1981 Arkansas Derby and finished second in the Preakness. But he is 3 for 3 at Zia Park, and if Penn National makes good on its promises, Rocky should have a chance to improve on that record.