Updated on 09/17/2011 10:07PM

Money's good, prestige better


SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - Bill Casner stood in the Sunland Park winner's circle on Saturday afternoon as the dying sun bathed the nearby Franklin Mountains in a deep adobe glow. Casner gazed into the distance, toward his native El Paso, then turned his attention to the crowd of more than 15,000 packing the small-scale Sunland Park grandstand behind him.

"This place was dead and didn't know it," Casner said. "For years and years, they never did a dollar's worth of capital improvements. And now look at it. To be able to host a crowd like this on a day like this, it's pretty amazing."

Casner could have called it a miracle and gotten no argument. Once a border town backwater on the North American racing landscape, with a purse distribution that had trouble hitting $20,000 a day, the little track by the Rio Grande has muscled its way into the national consciousness on the shoulders of a bustling casino and events like the $500,000 WinStar Derby and its companion, the $250,000 WinStar Oaks.

Sponsored by Casner's WinStar Farm, the pricey twin bill is backed to the hilt by Sunland Park's high-rolling owner, Stan Fulton, who puts up about $350,000 of the total Derby purse. In just three quick years the race has become the darling target of owners and trainers with 3-year-olds who have yet to prove themselves candidates for the more traditional Kentucky Derby preps.

Thor's Echo, the winner of this year's WinStar Derby, is a case in point. He was purchased in late January by Royce Jaime and Pablo Suarez after winning his maiden race at Santa Anita, with the WinStar Derby in mind. Trainer Doug O'Neill correctly figured the toughest 3-year-olds in the mix would be running in either the Florida Derby on the same day, or the cluster of major preps a week later, which includes Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby.

"I hope the WinStar does become a graded race," said O'Neill, who also won the Oaks with Cee's Irish. "The irony is, if it was a graded race, the competition would have been a lot tougher and Thor's Echo might not have won. Still, Mr. Fulton has put a lot into this place, and he certainly deserves to have a race with graded prestige. There were more people here today than there are most days at Santa Anita."

Fulton took ownership of Sunland Park from his former company, Anchor Gaming, upon his retirement as chairman of the Anchor Gaming board in 1997. At the time, video poker machines at New Mexico tracks were part of a bill legalizing Indian casinos. With Fulton leading the way, Sunland's first slots were up and running in 1999. In 2001, when the competition at the Tigua tribe's Speaking Rock Casino just east of El Paso was closed by the Texas attorney general, Sunland's foreseeable future was assured.

Sunland's average purse distribution now exceeds $200,000 a day for its five-month meet, running from November to early April. The track facilities have been renovated - many for the first time since it was built in 1959 - with an easy flow from casino to grandstand for those patrons so inclined.

"Going from purses of $30,000 a day in 1999 to where we are now is a racing secretary's dream," said Norm Amundson, who has held the post at Sunland for 10 years. "At the same time, things change. It used to be, if a guy didn't get in a race it was no big deal. Now, if they don't get in, or a race doesn't go, they can get pretty upset because of the money involved."

Now that Sunland is doing its part to nurture New Mexico's racing and breeding business, Fulton sees no reason why it can't have a national impact as well, at least on the Kentucky Derby trail in the form of the WinStar Derby. If Fulton gets his wish, that will happen real soon, or he'll know the reason why.

"The derby will be worth $600,000 next year, and I honestly don't see how it's possible that it won't be a Grade 3," Fulton said last Saturday, as he watched one of his horses being saddled for an event on the Derby undercard.

If the WinStar Derby is to attain Grade 3 ranking, it must satisfy the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association that it belongs. There is a subjective element to the ratings, but the surest way to be graded is for horses who have run in the WinStar to go on to run well in other graded stakes around the nation.

The other way is for horses who have already racked up graded stakes credentials to show up for the WinStar. Their mere presence helps a race make the grade. Unfortunately, this time of year the greatest lure for 3-year-olds is purse money in graded races, which can help them get into an overfilled Kentucky Derby field.

For his part, Fulton doesn't really care how it happens, as long as it happens.

"Let's put it this way," he said. "If it doesn't get graded, it is definitely in jeopardy."

Having never sat across the green felt from Fulton, there was no way to know if he was bluffing or not. Based on what he has accomplished at Sunland Park, however, the smart money would be on "not."