09/09/2010 3:25PM

Purses draw herds to Zia meet

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Zia Park in Hobbs, N.M., has an enviable problem heading into its 53-date mixed meet for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses that opens on Saturday: Too much horsepower.

“I wish we didn’t have as many people on hold for stalls as we do,” said Mike Shamburg, director of racing and racing secretary for Zia. “We had requests for over 3,500 stalls, and we can only allot 1,440. There’s plenty of horseflesh, which is nice.”

Zia, which is owned by Penn Gaming, operates a 750-machine slots casino. Its revenue has helped lift purses to a projected $230,000 a day for the meet that runs through Dec. 7. The wealth is improving the racing. The first card of the season is led by a stakes-quality $40,000 optional claiming field of New Mexico-breds, and it has a purse of $39,200.

“The New Mexico-breds have improved leaps and bounds every year because the purses here are excellent for allowances and stakes,” Shamburg said. “The open horses are also getting stronger year by year. We’re seeing better-bred maidens, and owners and trainers who seem to be buying a lot of horses from California.

“Our visibility is gaining because of the purse structure.”

Zia’s stakes program is led by the $2 million New Mexico Cup on Oct. 31. The program will feature 11 stakes for New Mexico-bred Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, and is the richest program of its kind in North America. Other top races during the season include the $200,000 Zia Park Distance Championship at 1 1/8 miles Dec. 5, and the $150,000 Zia Park Derby at 1 1/16 miles Dec. 4.

“The Zia Park Derby is one of the year’s last straight 3-year-old stakes in the country, if not the last,” Shamburg said. “It’s a nice fit for those who want to duck the older horse at least one more time.”

Shamburg said the top 10 trainers from the 2009 meet have returned to Zia, with Henry Dominguez set to defend his title. Jack Bruner, a private trainer for Lone Star Park’s perennial leading owner, Tom Durant, has returned to his New Mexico roots with a division of horses. Jockey Justin Shepherd, who will team with Bruner, is another new face at Zia.

Steve Asmussen, North America’s leading Thoroughbred trainer by wins, and Paul Jones, who holds the same distinction for Quarter Horses, both have divisions at Zia.

“It’s kind of unique that the No. 1 trainers in both categories are in one place,” said Shamburg.

Shamburg said Zia is scheduled to run 11 races a day. The first card features 10 or more horses in five of those races, with Sunday’s program led by the $100,000 Premiere Cup.