12/10/2007 12:00AM

New meet opens on upswing

EmailThe $600,000 WinStar Derby and purses of $250,000 a day anchor a 77-date Sunland Park meet that will roll out a 50-cent pick four, a resurfaced racetrack, and a new claiming stakes program when it opens Wednesday.

Located in Sunland Park, N.M., the track and its 700-machine slots casino is 10 minutes from El Paso, Texas. The meet will host Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racing through April 22, 2008.

The WinStar Derby, at 1 1/8 miles, is the richest race of the meet and one of four stakes worth a cumulative $1 million on March 16. Once again it is also the first leg of a bonus series that offers $500,000 to the owner of the horse that sweeps the WinStar Derby, Santa Anita Derby, and Kentucky Derby. And aside from its rich purse and bonus offer, the WinStar has one other selling point, according to Harold Payne, general manager of Sunland.

"The WinStar Derby is one of the few dirt derbies left in the West prior to the Kentucky Derby," he said, noting the synthetic surfaces now in place at tracks in California.

Sunland has worked to expand its simulcast network this meet, Payne said, with its races scheduled to go into about 800 sites, including some in Germany and South America. Last year, the track reached 760 outlets. Sunland also purchased new graphics for its signal.

In other changes, a 50-cent pick four will be available on the final four races of the card, and at least six new big-screen televisions have been added to the facility. The racing surface has also been resurfaced during the off-season.

"We stripped to the base and sold the old material to a training track and brought in all new cushion," Payne said. "It should play similar because it's the same blend of different sands and organic material."

There were requests for 4,000 stalls this meet, according to Norm Amundson, the racing secretary at Sunland. The track can accommodate 1,658 horses, with much of the overflow expected to be stabled at training centers in the region.

"I expect 3,500 sets of [foal] papers for sure by the first of the year," said Amundson.

The leading trainers from last season are back, Amundson said, including Chris Hartman, the defending training champ; Henry Dominguez, the overall leading trainer in New Mexico from 2003 to 2006; Steve Asmussen, a multiple title winner at Sunland; and Jon Arnett, a multiple title winner at Arapahoe Park. Among the riders, Ken Tohill is back to defend his title in a colony that includes newcomer Brian Long.

The new claiming stakes program features four races with purses starting at $25,000 and ascending to $40,000. The horses starting in the races will be eligible to be claimed out of the stakes, with the claiming prices to range from $7,500 to $12,500.

"The horsemen had been asking [for this]," said Amundson. "They had a similar situation at Ruidoso a few years ago that was popular."

Amundson looks for the series to add to the already healthy claiming that goes on at Sunland. Last meet, he said, 260 horses were claimed for total receipts of $2,691,250, which was up from 251 claims for $2,114,500 during the corresponding meet in2005-06.

Sunland's opening weekend could include an appearance by Peppers Pride, the undefeated filly scheduled to go for her 14th career win in the $125,000 New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap on Sunday. In other points of interest, Payne said that Michael Irvin, a retired receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, will be the keynote speaker for the annual WinStar Gala, held the night before the WinStar Derby.

Sunland will race on Wednesdays instead of its traditional Tuesdays for its first four weeks because this year both Christmas and New Year's fall on Tuesday. The track, which also races every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, will shift to Tuesdays on Jan. 8.