05/04/2009 11:00PM

Local derby gets boost

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Since the Sunland Park Derby was introduced in 2003, track officials have taken aggressive steps to try and get the race graded status. Their ship might have come in last Saturday. Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby at 50-1 one start after finishing fourth in this year's $800,000 Sunland Park Derby.

"Hopefully his win, coupled with the performances of some of the other horses that came out of the race, will earn enough points to get us graded this year," said Harold Payne, general manager of Sunland. "We've got some depth and quality coming out of the race."

Advice, who was fifth in the Sunland Derby, came back in his next start to win the Grade 2 Lexington on April 18, while Mythical Power, the runner-up in the Sunland Derby, is expected to start as a top choice Saturday in the Grade 3, $400,000 Lone Star Park Derby. Another Sunland Derby graduate, third-place finisher Scorewithcater, is headed next to the Grade 2 Peter Pan, said his trainer, Doug O'Neill.

All of this bodes well for the prospects of a grade for the Sunland Derby, which would be a first for a Thoroughbred race in New Mexico.

"I can't speak for each of the 11 members and how Mine That Bird's win might affect their own voting on the race, I can only think that winning a classic would get everybody's attention," said Andy Schweigardt, secretary of the American Graded Stakes Committee. "It's still six months away from the grading session. A lot can happen in the next six months."

The Sunland Derby will be compared with current Grade 3 races to see if it warrants being upgraded, said Schweigardt. There are several criteria by which stakes races are judged. Members at the grading session are given charts of the most recent five runnings of a race, and the charts reflect how its starters performed in graded stakes 24 months before the race, and 24 months following the race. A sliding-scale points system assigns starters credits for first-, second- and third-place finishes in Grade 1, 2 and 3 races over that 48-month period. An average based on those points is then attached to each race as one of several statistical measurements considered in voting, said Schweigardt.

"Mine That Bird will help the Sunland Park Derby, and help any another race he ran in this year and going forward for two years," said Schweigardt.

Mine That Bird ran twice at Sunland, finishing second by a neck to Scorewithcater in the $100,000 Borderland Derby. And he's not the first horse to run in New Mexico and go on and win the Kentucky Derby. Payne mentioned that Real Quiet ran third in the $571,000 Indian Nations Futurity at the now-shuttered Santa Fe Downs before his wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, which is the next stop for Mine That Bird.

Sunland introduced its derby with a purse of $500,000. The track's owner, Stan Fulton, increased the base purse from $600,000 to $800,000 for 2009, with bonuses giving the race a potential purse of $1 million. (This year's winner Kelly Leak won a $100,000 bonus because he had graded earnings coming into the Sunland Derby.) Before Mine That Bird, the most noted horse the Sunland Derby had produced was Thor's Echo, the winner in 2005 who a year later won the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Dustin Dix, director of racing operations for Sunland, said plans are to run the 2010 Sunland Derby on the last Sunday in March, at 1 1/8 miles, the same timing and distance as 2009. He said the bonus might not be renewed, but that Fulton plans to keep the purse at $800,000 for the 2010 running if a grade is awarded to the Sunland Derby.