12/08/2010 1:52PM

Sunland Park resurfaces dirt track for new meet

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Shawn Coady/Coady Photography
Endorsement wins the Grade 3 Sunland Derby in March.

The Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Park Derby will be conducted over a brand new racing surface when it highlights the New Mexico track’s 77-date meet that opens Friday. Sunland will feature both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses during its season, which runs through April 19.

The slots-rich track, which is located just over the border from El Paso, Texas, resurfaced its track during the off season. In addition to putting up a new outside rail around the one-mile oval, eight inches of surface material was removed and replaced.

“The reason we’re putting a lot of attention on the track is that we have a graded [Kentucky] Derby prep and we want to make sure we have the best dirt surface we can provide,” said Harold Payne, general manager of Sunland.

“I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on the track so far. We’ll have to see how it will play. It’s a kinder surface. It’s less clay and more fine sand, more coarse sand. And it’s got a lot of organic content.”

Endorsement won the first graded running of the 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby last spring. This year’s Sunland Derby card on March 27 will include six stakes worth a cumulative $1.4 million, among them the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks. The Sunland Derby is the richest of the 32 stakes for Thoroughbreds this meet, while the Grade 1, $350,000 Championship on Dec. 26 is the top event for Quarter Horses.

Sunland will look to expand play on both breeds this meet by adding two new bets to its wagering format. The Grand Slam wager covers four races, with the first leg of the bet to be a Quarter Horse race and the final three for Thoroughbreds. It requires players to select horses who finish third or better in the first three races, while having the winner of the fourth. It is a $1 bet, with a mandatory payout daily, Payne said. Sunland also will add a place pick five that requires players to select horses that finish second or better in each of the last five races on the card.

In other changes, the track will conduct races at a mile and 70 yards for the first time in its history, Payne said. Sunland is limited to 10 horses in one-mile races because of the way the track is configured but will be able to have 12 at the new distance. As a result, Sunland has adjusted the distance of some of its stakes to a mile and 70 yards to make larger fields possible, Payne said.

Sunland will offer $250,000 a day in purses this meet, and the rich structure has helped the track lure divisions from both Steve Asmussen, who leads all Thoroughbred trainers in wins in North America this year, and Paul Jones, who is the nation’s leading Quarter Horse trainer. Among the new trainers is Shannon Ritter, who won the Sunland Derby with Endorsement and is bringing the horse to town for the meet, Payne said. Ramsey Zimmerman, who is locked in a battle for the riding title at the Remington Park meet that ends Saturday, also will be new to Sunland.

On Wednesday, the track was the 19th to receive full accreditation by the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance. Sunland upgraded its pre-race veterinary inspection procedures to meet the standards of the alliance, instituted testing for alkalizing agents, and is requiring specific safety equipment be worn by those on the track, among other policy changes.

“This puts us in the company of some respectable names in the business,” Payne said of the accreditation. “People that race here know we are doing all we can to uphold integrity and safety.”

Sunland will open with an 11-race card that drew 102 horses. The first seven races on the program are trials for the Grade 2, $100,000 Sunland Park Winter Quarter Horse Futurity on Dec. 26.