12/05/2012 2:41PM

Sunland Park: Track institutes new drug policy as 76-day meet opens

Coady Photography
Sunland Park's 76-day mixed meet for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses is topped by the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby on March 24.

Sunland Park in New Mexico will open a 76-date meet Friday with a stern new policy on drug positives, qualifying races for both the Kentucky Derby and the Kentucky Oaks, and a stakes named for arguably its most famous alumnus, Mine That Bird.

Sunland is situated right next door to El Paso, Texas, and it will conduct a mixed meet for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses through April 16. The Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby and the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks will share a card March 24, which will offer seven stakes worth $1.4 million.

Sunland, like other tracks in New Mexico, has rolled out a new medication policy for its meet. A trainer issued a ruling for a Class 1 or Class  2 drug positive for a horse in his care will be barred from the grounds, while entries from the trainer will not be accepted, said Dustin Dix, director of racing operations for Sunland.

“We just want to protect the integrity of racing,” he said.

The policy extends to all trainers with such rulings against them, and Dix said 11 trainers from Louisiana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma have either been denied stalls at Sunland or informed by letter that entries will not be accepted from them.

“It’s for current [rulings], until they have served their time or the case has been adjudicated,” Dix said.

Trainers granted stalls at Sunland had to sign a document acknowledging their familiarity with the policy before they could bring horses into the stable area. The provision was part of a larger trainer packet outlining meet rules and policies at Sunland.

Dix projects Sunland will offer more than $230,000 a day in purses this meet. The 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby is the richest race of the season, and under the new Kentucky Derby qualifying system it will award points to the top four finishers on a 50-20-10-5 basis. The 1 1/16-mile Sunland Park Oaks, meanwhile, has the same value toward the Kentucky Oaks.

Plum Pretty won both the Sunland Park Oaks and Kentucky Oaks in 2011, while Mine That Bird parlayed a fourth-place finish in the 2009 Sunland Derby into a 50-1 upset of the Kentucky Derby. He was a catalyst for the Sunland Derby receiving a grade, and Sunland has named the former Borderland Derby for him. The Mine That Bird Derby will serve as the final local prep for the Sunland Derby. The 1 1/16-mile Mine That Bird Derby will be run Feb. 23 for a purse of $130,000.

Mine That Bird’s story is being turned into a motion picture named “50 to 1”, and during Sunland’s offseason scenes for the movie were filmed at the track, Dix said. The movie is being overseen by Jim Wilson, who won an Academy Award as the producer of “Dances With Wolves”.

“They shot all around New Mexico in the summer, and opening weekend [at Sunland] they’re going to shoot some racing footage for the movie,” said Dix, who played a paddock judge during the offseason shoot.

The movie also was filmed in Kentucky.

“It will be fun when it comes out,” Dix said. “We expect to get another bump from the story and everything.”

Sunland will run 32 stakes for Thoroughbreds this meet. It has renamed the Sydney Valentini for Peppers Pride, the New Mexico-bred who won all 19 of her starts. The one-mile race for statebred fillies and mares is Feb. 16. Other major races include the Grade 1, $350,000 Championship for Quarter Horses on Dec. 30.

Miguel Hernandez is back to defend his riding title, fresh off winning the Thoroughbred title at Zia Park in Hobbs, N.M. Justin Evans, who was the leading Thoroughbred trainer at Zia, seeks to add a Sunland title to his r é sum é , while the barn area also houses divisions from past Sunland champs Henry Dominguez and Chris Hartman. New stables include trainers Robertino Diodoro and Greg Tracy. Robbie Junk is the new racing secretary and serves in the same capacity at Ruidoso.

Sunland will make a change to its wagering format, lowering the minimum on its early and late daily doubles from $2 to $1, Dix said.