12/04/2013 3:06PM

Sunland Park begins 55th season

Coady Photography
The field breaks from the gate in the 2013 Sunland Derby, which Bob Baffert-trained Govenor Charlie won by five lengths.

Sunland Park will move into its 55th year of operation on Friday with 85-point preps for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, a new general manager, and anticipation building for the March 21 release of a movie about its most famous starter, Mine That Bird.

Sunland, which operates a mixed meet for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, will race 76 days through April 15, 2014. Rick Baugh is the new general manager, taking over from the retired Harold Payne. Baugh had previously overseen operations at Zia Park in Hobbs, N.M. He joined Sunland in April. 

Sunland Park is located in New Mexico, 10 minutes from El Paso, Texas, and is owned by Stan Fulton of Las Vegas. Sunland is the home of the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Park Derby, a mile and an eighth race that will anchor a $1.4 million card of seven stakes March 23. The winner of the Sunland Derby, the meet’s richest race, will receive 50 points towards Kentucky Derby preference if the classic is oversubscribed. The second- though fourth-place finishers will earn 20, 10, and 5 points, respectively. The program includes the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks, a mile and a sixteenth race that awards its top four finishers points towards the Kentucky Oaks.

Purses at Sunland are fueled by an ontrack casino of 725 slot machines. Revenues from the operation have helped Sunland achieve substantial growth in the last decade.

“We’re very proud that it’s our 55th year, and being in business that long, and thriving like we are now,” said Dustin Dix, director racing operations for Sunland. “We’re really proud of what the casino’s done for the racing side.”

Dix said purses for the meet are projected to be about $260,000 a day, which is on par with last season. The stakes schedule includes 32 races for Thoroughbreds, worth a collective $3.1 million. The most lucrative prize for Quarter Horses is the Grade 1, $350,000 Championship to be run on Dec.  29.

Sunland gained national prominence in 2009, when Mine That Bird raced twice at the meet and went on to win the Kentucky Derby. His upset in the classic led to the making of the feature film “50-to-1,” and Dix said Sunland is in talks to bring the film’s cast to town to talk about the movie the morning of the Sunland Derby.

“In the past we’ve had a handicapping seminar, and this year we’re looking to do something with a tie-in with the movie,” said Dix.

Dix said part of the film was shot at Sunland in September 2012, including “reenactments” of the 2009 Borderland and Sunland derbies in which Mine That Bird finished a respective second and fourth. The Borderland Derby has since been renamed the Mine That Bird, and the mile and a sixteenth race has a purse of $120,000 and will be run Feb. 22 as the local prep for the Sunland Derby. 

Sunland’s simulcast signal will go into such new sites as Finger Lakes ADW, Les Bois, Wyoming Downs, and Turf TV in Europe. Officials said Sunland will also have an increased presence in California this year, with the races to be simulcast to the state on Fridays.

The riding colony this meet includes Ry Eikleberry, who on Tuesday won the title at Zia, and Irwin Rosendo, a new face from Ohio, said Dix. Henry Dominguez is back to defend his training title against a group of horsemen that includes Justin Evans, fresh off winning the title at Zia, as well as Robertino Diodoro, Bart Hone, and Chip Woolley, who trained Mine That Bird.

Sunland has expanded its integrity policy for trainers racing at the meet, with a “more in depth” code of conduct in place that now addresses technology issues, said Dix. Trainers must sign off on the code of conduct before being admitted to the backstretch at Sunland.

There are 11 races on the track’s opening card, with six of them trials for the Sunland Park Winter Quarter Horse Futurity. First post is 12:15 p.m. Mountain.