11/03/2004 12:00AM

Slots open door to richer purses

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What a difference 700 slot machines have made. Just five seasons ago, purses at Sunland Park in New Mexico averaged $30,000 a day. When the track opens Friday for 87 days of racing, purses will average $210,000 a program and the stakes schedule will include a nationally televised prep for the Kentucky Derby.

Purses at Sunland have surged since the track opened a slots casino in 1999.

"It's exceeded all of our expectations," said Harold Payne, the general manager of Sunland. "It's been very rewarding."

Sunland is racing seven more dates and has increased the distances on two of its richest races: the $500,000 WinStar Derby, which has been stretched from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles, and the $250,000 WinStar Sunland Park Oaks, which has been stretched from a mile to 1 1/16 miles.

"It's to make [the races] more of a true Derby and Oaks prep," said Payne, referring to the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. "Some of the trainers who came in last year recommended it."

Payne said Sunland hopes to get the WinStar Derby and WinStar Oaks graded.

Both races will be telecast live on ESPN2 on April 2, 2005.

In other changes, Sunland has made $3.3 million in improvements to the track over the offseason. Eric Alwan, spokesman for Sunland, said the package includes expansion of the turf club and construction of two new barns. Also new this meet is the addition of an also-eligible list to entries, said Alwan.

Steve Asmussen, the nation's leading trainer in wins, will expand his presence at the track this meet, said Alwan. Asmussen won the meet title last year and faces a roster of trainers expected to include Bret Calhoun, Henry Dominguez, Ramon Gonzalez, Martin Lozano, and Eric Kruljac.

Ted Gondron, Jeremy Beasley, and Weldon Cloninger have joined a jockey colony that includes Casey Lambert and Ken Tohill, who tied atop the standings last year at Sunland, and Ricardo Jaime, who swept last year's WinStar Derby and Oaks aboard Hi Teck Man and Speedy Falcon.

The top race for Quarter Horses this meet is the $400,000 Championship on Dec. 26, which will be telecast on ESPN. Also on Dec. 26 is the $175,000 Riley Allison Futurity for Thoroughbreds.

The Sunland meet will conclude April 3.

At a glance

RACING SCHEDULE: 87 days; Nov. 5 through April 3; dark Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, except for Wednesday, Dec. 22 and Thursday, Dec. 23.

POST TIME: 12:15 p.m. Mountain, Nov. 5-Jan. 30; 12:15 p.m., Feb. 1-13; 12:55 p.m., Feb. 15-April 3

ADMISSIONS: General admission in the grandstand and turf club is free.

SEATING: Grandstand and apron seating is free; Table seating in the turf club is $5 per person.

MEET HIGHLIGHTS: $500,000 WinStar Derby and $250,000 WinStar Sunland Park Oaks, April 2; $175,000 Riley Allison Futurity, Dec. 26.

PARKING: General and valet parking is free.

LOCATION: 1200 futurity Drive, Sunland Park, N.M.; just south of I-10, only 10 minutes west of downtown El Paso, Texas.

PHONE: (505) 874-5200

INTERNET: www.sunland-park.com

SLOT MACHINES: Approximately 700 machines