12/13/2006 1:00AM

Purses at a high, signal going wide

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Slots-rich Sunland Park has made a number of key improvements to its racing program for its 79-date meet that opens Friday. The changes include increasing purses to a record $255,000 a day and moving the date of its richest race, the $600,000 WinStar Derby, back two weeks to March 18.

Sunland, which operates a mixed meet for both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, has also made $3.7 million in improvements to the facility during its downtime, expanded its simulcast network, and is introducing a 50-cent pick four on its final four races each day.

"I would like to see an increase in live handle - that's what I would like to accomplish," said Harold Payne, general manager of Sunland.

To that end, Sunland's races will go into more than 800 simulcast sites this meet, with the track to have a greater presence in New York. For the first time, all cards from Sunland will go to Nassau County offtrack betting parlors.

"When I spoke to them," said Steve Pedigo, the simulcast coordinator for Sunland, of his talks with Nassau OTB, "they talked about weather issues canceling out a lot of tracks. They were afraid of that, so they went ahead and laid us in every day."

Pedigo said that in another first, Sunland's races will go into the New York Racing Association's Telebet system. The track will also have a greater presence this meet in South America.

Sunland is home to 720 slot machines, and it was the first track to operate slots in the Southwest market when the casino opened in 1999. Since then, purses have grown from $30,000 a day to this meet's record $255,000, which is having a direct impact on the quality of racing, said Payne.

"I think our racing product's better, fuller fields and more competitive," he said. "We've got some races continually growing, and hopefully gaining some interest."

One is the WinStar Derby, run over 1 1/8 miles. A few changes have been made to the race for this meet's running, including backing it up to March after the 2006 edition was run in April.

"We were a week before the Santa Anita Derby," said Payne. "We moved our race two weeks earlier, so we're three weeks away from that race now."

Sunland has also tied a new $500,000 bonus to the WinStar. It will be awarded to the owner of the horse who can sweep the WinStar, the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Last season, there was a $500,000 bonus offered for a sweep of the Borderland Derby and WinStar, both at Sunland, and the Kentucky Derby.

Patrons returning for the new meet will find 250 new high-definition television sets in the turf club, Payne said. Sunland has also placed rubberized brick throughout the paddock area, resurfaced the racetrack, and put in a new inside rail.

The stakes schedule will get under way on Saturday, with three stakes on the program, including an appearance by millionaire Rocky Gulch in the $125,000 Johnie L. Jamison.