12/03/2011 12:24PM

Sunland Park meeting opens with focus on 3-year-olds

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Justin N. Lane
Ruler On Ice ran in this past year's Sunland Derby, then went on to win the Belmont Stakes.

Sunland Park’s profile rose sharply back in 2009, when one of its own, Mine That Bird, won the Kentucky Derby. The track’s 3-year-old program gained even more momentum last season, when another Sunland Derby grad, Ruler On Ice, went on to win this year’s Belmont Stakes, and the Sunland Oaks winner Plum Pretty won the Kentucky Oaks.

Tuesday, a new meet opens at Sunland Park, and officials at the New Mexico track, located just across the border from El Paso, Texas, are taking steps to try and continue to lure quality 3-year-olds to town. In addition to again placing the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Park Derby and $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks on the same card in late March, the track has boosted the purse of the Borderland Derby from $100,000 to $150,000.

“That’s the prep for the Sunland Derby,” said Harold Payne, general manager of Sunland. “We wanted to try and attract more horses to come run in the prep.”

The Borderland Derby, at 1 1/16 miles, is on Feb. 25. The race falls a month ahead of the March 25 Sunland Derby, which will be the richest race of the track’s 77-date mixed meet for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. The season continues through April 17.

The 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby will anchor a card of seven stakes worth more than $1.5 million. Officials expanded the lineup this meet by adding the $100,000 Bill Thomas Memorial, a 6 1/2-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds and up. The move was made in part to expand the offerings for horsemen who might be shipping in for the Sunland Derby or Sunland Oaks.

“A lot of guys ask ‘What else do you have that day?” said Payne.

The richest program of the meet will also include the $100,000 Harry W. Henson Handicap for fillies and mares at a mile, and three stakes restricted to horses bred in New Mexico.

Sunland, which is home to 725 slot machines, projects purses will average $250,000 a day this meet. The figure is the same as last season, said Payne.

The stable area has been filling up fast, with trainer Chris Hartman, a four-time title winner, expected back along with Henry Dominguez, who was to wrap up his sixth Zia Park training title on Sunday. New faces include trainers Jeff Lynn from Illinois and Matthew Fales and Manny Ortiz Sr. from Arizona. Among riders, Alejandro Medellin is back to defend his title in a colony that includes such new faces as Jose L. Vega from Pennsylvania, and Cecilio Penalba and Ry Eikleberry from Zia.

For bettors, Sunland will introduce a new pick six wager this meet that will have a 10-cent minimum. Called the Solo 6, it requires bettors to pick the winners of the last six races on the program. If there is one winning ticket, the entire pool will be distributed. If not, 60 percent of the pool will carry over to the next day’s program and the remaining 40 percent will be distributed among multiple winners or as a consolation payoff.

Sunland will also have a new pick five that requires bettors to pick the winners of the final five races on the program. The track had previously had a place pick five on those races. The bet will have a 50-cent minimum.

The meet will also feature a new infield video board, said Payne. It will be larger than the old one, he said, estimating that the new video screen measures about 13 feet by 22 feet.

As for the track’s signal, Sunland, which has a simulcast network of more than 800 sites, will have more exposure this year in California. Dustin Dix, the director of racing operations for Sunland, said the track’s races are scheduled to be sent to California every Tuesday and on some Sundays.

First post Tuesday is 12:25 p.m. Mountain.