11/18/2001 12:00AM

Slots fuel a bigger, better facility


Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino begins its 80-day live Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse meet Tuesday on an upswing. Purses at the New Mexico track have increased dramatically since the introduction of slot machines in 1999, and the facility has been renovated since last year's meet and is in the process of being expanded.

A 29,000-square-foot addition to the upper-level casino and a 26,000-square-foot addition to the lower-level grandstand are under construction, additional parking space has been added, 240 new stalls have been built on the backstretch, And a 17-by 13-foot Jumbotron screen has been installed in the infield. The extra casino space is scheduled to open in December and will accommodate nearly 500 slot machines in addition to the 300 already in use. All told, track owner Stanley Fulton has spent almost $15 million during the off-season to upgrade Sunland Park.

Racing secretary Norm Amundson said daily purse distribution will be $135,000, up from $125,000 last season, and that he received 4,000 applications for the 1,600 available stalls.

Ramon Gonzalez, the leading Thoroughbred trainer here last meet, and his Quarter Horse counterpart, Tony Sedillo, are back. Newcomers to the Sunland meet who figure to make an impact are Jerry Dobbs, who last year raced at Tampa Bay in the winter and Canterbury Park in the summer, and Bart Hone, a regular at Turf Paradise who trains for R.D. Hubbard. Daryl Montoya, who rides first call for Gonzalez and led the Thoroughbred jockey standings last year, is back, as is J.J. Gonzales, the top Quarter Horse jockey in 2001.

The Championship at Sunland Park, a Grade 1 $300,000 race at 400 yards for Quarter Horses, will be run for the first time Dec. 29 and will be broadcast live on ESPN. Among the Thoroughbred racing highlights are a pair of $40,000-added races for 3-year-olds, the Sunland Park Oaks for fillies at one mile March 30, and the Riley Allison Derby at 1 1/16 miles March 31. On April 6, fillies and mares will compete in the $45,000 Harry W. Henson Handicap at one mile and older horses will run in the $70,000 Sunland Park Handicap at 1 1/16 miles.

The last week of April will feature four stakes for 2-year-old Quarter Horses, topped by the Grade 1 West Texas Futurity at 300 yards, which last year was worth more than $265,000.

Racing will be conducted Friday through Sunday and on Tuesdays, with a 12:35 p.m. first post. The meet will run through April 7. Each card will consist of six Thoroughbred and four Quarter Horse races.