12/14/2016 3:16PM

Sunland's two biggest races return after a year's absence


Last winter, Sunland Park battled one of the worst scenarios that can grip a racetrack – an outbreak of equine herpesvirus that led to both lost race dates and the cancellation of its signature event, the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby.

But that will all be a distant memory on Friday, when the New Mexico track launches a 72-date meet for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. The Sunland Derby is back on the calendar for March 26 and will lead a $1.5 million program that includes the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks.

Those traditional Sunland stakes had to be revised last season after the track lost a month of racing while under quarantine. Sunland ended up putting on a $415,000 stakes for 3-year-olds to replace the 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby, but unlike past seasons, there were no Kentucky Derby eligibility points attached to the meet’s biggest offering for 3-year-olds. At this meet, the points are back for both the Sunland Derby and the 1 1/16-mile Sunland Oaks, a Kentucky Oaks qualifier, on a sliding scale of 50-20-10-5.

The races are part of a $5 million stakes schedule. The Sunland Derby and Sunland Oaks will be supported by five other stakes at this meet, including the $100,000 Harry Henson and $100,000 Bill Thomas Memorial. The local preps for the Sunland Derby start Jan. 29 with the $100,000 Riley Allison at a mile. The $100,000 Mine That Bird Derby will be run over 1 1/16 miles on Feb. 26.

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Other major races include the Grade 1, $350,000 Championship at Sunland Park, which is for Quarter Horses. It will share a card with the $200,000 Sunland Park Juvenile Championship, also for Quarter Horses, on Dec. 31. Imperial Eagle, the winner of the Grade 1, $3 million All American Futurity at Ruidoso Downs, is among those expected for the Sunland Park Juvenile, according to track spokesman Eric Alwan.

Sunland will race most Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Tuesdays through April 18. There will be no live racing Dec. 24-25 in observance of Christmas Eve and Christmas. There will be special Wednesday cards on Dec. 21 and Dec. 28.

First post will be 12:45 p.m. Mountain.

Justin Evans is among the returning trainers to Sunland, where he has won the past four titles. Todd Fincher will be on hand for the new season, as will Joel Marr. Karl Broberg, who ventured to Sunland for the first time last season, said he will be returning with a division of about 20 horses. Broberg is the leading trainer in wins in North America this year.

In a new policy, Sunland has adopted “stringent biosecurity” requirements for horses shipping into the stable area, the track announced in November.