03/23/2010 12:00AM

Sunland earns spot on map

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Last year at this time, very few people were paying any attention to Sunland Park in southeastern New Mexico or its Kentucky Derby prep race despite an $800,000 purse.

Then Mine That Bird happened.

Think about it, a horse who was badly outrun in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a horse who could finish only fourth in the obscure Sunland Derby, actually went to Churchill Downs and overpowered the entire field to win America's most famous race.

While that longshot success may be sufficient to pay attention to this year's 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby on Sunday. it is not the most important reason.

After seven previous years of heavy investment into the Sunland's marquee race - including considerable revenue from the track's 700 slot machines and sponsorship by WinStar Farm - the Sunland Derby will be contested for the first time as a Grade 3 race. This did not come without a long struggle for recognition or without principal owner Stanley Fulton's dedicated commitment to improving the quality of Sunland's signature race.

Now, thanks in part to Mine That Bird and other graded stakes victories by several horses who ran in the 2009 Sunland Derby, Fulton's track enters a new era on Sunday. This Sunland Derby not only will be the first graded Thoroughbred race in New Mexico history, but the size of the purse will boost the winner and possibly the second-place finisher into the select group of horses who have sufficient graded stakes earnings to make it into the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.

Mine That Bird got in last year because he had earned graded money as a 2-year-old in Canada, but no other horse in the ungraded 2009 Sunland Derby would have qualified for the big race at Churchill Downs based on his minimal graded stakes earnings.

"Without [the race] being graded, it was difficult to get the top 3-year-olds," explained Sunland spokesman Dustin Dix, who pointed to a strong group of Derby prospects coming from different parts of the country this year.

Chief among them is undefeated Conveyance, winner of the Grade 3 San Rafael at Santa Anita on Jan. 16 and the Grade 3 Southwest stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 20. Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Conveyance made a successful conversion from Southern California's synthetic tracks to dirt when he scored a wire-to-wire win over Grade 1-winning Dublin in the Southwest, overcoming an outer post position.

Baffert expects a good performance by Conveyance on Sunday and was quite aware of the changes that have affected this race. In fact, he won the 2006 Sunland Derby with Wanna Runner and has supported the Sunland Oaks with regularity in recent years, winning the Oaks twice, with Gabby's Golden Gal in 2009 and Tough Tiz's Sis in 2007. Both of those fillies went on to win Grade 1 races in New York. This year, Baffert is sending Miss Heather Lee to the 1 1/16-mile, $200,000 race for 3-year-old fillies, and that filly's credentials include a second-place finish to Blind Luck in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet last December.

Said Baffert recently, "The purse money is good here, and the Oaks probably should be a graded race too. Beyond that, you have to love the fact that Sunland has a very good dirt track."

For the same reasons, Eastern-based trainer Kelly Breen is shipping in Nacho Friend, who was third in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on March 6. Another Eastern-based trainer, Steve Klesaris, is sending Tempted to Tapit, who finished well for second in the Grade 3 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 20. Posse Power and Fog Alert, third and fourth in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on Feb. 20, are coming in from Northern California.

Others expected to compete in the Sunland Derby include Endorsement, Storming Saint, and Haitian Hero. Endorsement won a maiden race at Oaklawn and also finished in front of the promising Northern Giant in a prior outing before Northern Giant won his own maiden race and finished right behind Tempted to Tapit in the Risen Star.

Storming Saint finished second in the locally run Borderland Derby on Feb. 27, but was promoted to first when the unofficial winner, Raise the Bridle, was disqualified for interference by the Sunland Park stewards. Haitian Hero was fourth in the same race, which was where Mine That Bird finished last year after an eventful trip that escaped serious notice until he shocked the world at Churchill Downs.

Conveyance already has $210,000 in graded earnings to rank 13th in graded stakes earnings and will be a decided betting favorite on Sunday. But Tempted to Tapit, with $60,000 in graded earnings, is no easy mark and ranks 33rd with a genuine chance to upset the favorite should the extra distance and/or some legitimate pace pressure develop. Nacho Friend, with $32,500, is 38th and also needs a top-two finish to advance, as does every other member of the field.

That said, there will be three other graded Derby prep races, the 1 1/8-mile Grade 2, $750,000 Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in New Orleans; the 1 1/8-mile Grade 2, $500,000 Lane's End Stakes on Polytrack at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky.; and the 1 3/16-mile Group 2, $2 million UAE Derby on Tapeta at the new Meydan racetrack in Dubai.

This year's UAE Derby, which is part of the prestigious Dubai World Cup card, is expected to be a proving ground for Godolphin stable's Mendip, who won the nongraded Al Bastikiya stakes last month as a prep for Saturday's rich Group 2 race.

The Louisiana Derby has 13 entered, including Risen Star winner Discreetly Mine, who has $310,000 in graded earnings to rank sixth on the list, plus several who need a win or second-place finish to crack the top 20. These include local Lecomte stakes winner Ron the Greek; the Todd Pletcher-trained Mission Impazible; Canadian-based Hotep; Florida-based sprinter A Little Warm; the Steve Margolis-trained Stay Put, and four representing Hall of Fame trainers: Drosselmeyer for Bill Mott, The Program for Bob Baffert, Fly Down for Nick Zito, and Wow Wow Wow for D. Wayne Lukas.

At Turfway, on a card that will also feature several stakes, including the nongraded Rushaway for late developing 3-year-olds, Pletcher has two potential starters in the Lane's End - Connemara and Doubles Partner, both of whom need to finish first or second to join Pletcher's large group of Derby contenders.

Connemara has won 3 of 4 career starts, including the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields to rank 26th in graded earnings with $90,000. Doubles Partner has no graded earnings but earned a shot in this race by narrowly defeating Barbaro's full brother Lentenor in an allowance race on the Gulfstream Park turf course Feb. 17. The Lane's End field also includes the Lukas-trained Northern Giant. Ken McPeek has Outlaw Man; Michael Maker is bringing Dean's Kitten; Dale Romans is shipping Vow to Wager; Eoin Harty is sending Kettle River, and Mott is giving lightly raced Chief Counsel a chance to make the grade.

While Northern Giant and Dean's Kitten are among the top 40 in graded stakes earnings, this might be a very good spot for Northern Giant to add to the credibility of horses who made bids chasing front-running Discreetly Mine through soft fractions in the Risen Star. Fact is, I like the three horses who finished behind Discreetly Mine at Fair Grounds: Tempted to Tapit in the Sunland Derby; Northern Giant in the Lane's End, and Drosselmeyer in the Louisiana Derby and will consider a round-robin, win-place parlay on all three.

* Steve Davidowitz will be hosting a handicapping seminar on Sunland Derby Day, Sunday, at 11 a.m. in Sunland's Signature Showroom. He also will be signing copies of his revised and expanded "Betting Thoroughbreds for the 21st Century" immediately following the seminar.