09/19/2005 12:00AM

Is Zia fool's gold or bonanza?


A group of investors headed by John "Bet-a-Million" Gates thought they had a good thing going in 1906 when they plunged their money into the building of Rockingham Park. After all, a Puritanical wind was blowing hot in New York, where legal gambling was on the ropes. A first-class racetrack in the New Hampshire town of Salem figured to lure disenfranchised horses and fans.

Sad to say, Gates and his partners miscalculated the home-grown political opposition. After a glorious opening on June 28, 1906, the track was raided on the third day of the meet by state authorities and all the bookmakers were hauled away. Rockingham was shuttered.

The skeptics laughed when Dr. Charles Strub, a dentist from San Francisco, vowed to carve a great racing emporium from the orange groves of the San Gabriel Valley, just north of Los Angeles, in the midst of the Great Depression. Strub promised top-drawer facilities, the nation's first $100,000 race, and marquee horses and jockeys. It would be so exciting that he proposed the unthinkable - admission would be charged. On Dec. 25, 1934, Santa Anita was born.

Building a racetrack from scratch and maintaining its original integrity requires no small amount of imagination, daring, and old-fashioned good luck. Even with cash reserves and a bankable master plan, longevity is never guaranteed.

In 1985, a sparkling new version of Garden State Park was christened in New Jersey. By 2002 it was history. Birmingham Race Course in Alabama, built in 1987, eventually devolved into a greyhound facility. In 1990, the Woodlands gave Kansas City its very own Thoroughbred arena, then woke up one day as a combination horse/hound operation.

Now comes Zia Park, located on the Texas border of southeastern New Mexico in the town of Hobbs (pop. 28,657). Known as the "oil capital" of New Mexico, Hobbs is a town whose fortunes fluctuate with the ups and downs of the petroleum industry. According to the local historical society, "Hobbs was founded in 1907 as an agricultural and ranching community and became prominent after the discovery of oil in June 1928. People flocked to Hobbs to work in the oil fields, some living in tents."

Whether or not they will be flocking to Hobbs to play the ponies remains to be seen. Friday, Zia Park will begin a 44-day meet, running four days a week through Dec. 4, highlighted by a pair of $100,000 Thoroughbred races at the end of the meet, and $990,000 worth of stakes for horses bred in New Mexico on Nov. 6.

That may sound like chump change in today's stakes world, but for owners, trainers, jockeys, and breeders of New Mexico and west Texas, it's found money.

The new track owes its name to the Zia tribe of New Mexico, known for their historic Zia Pueblo built on a mesa just to the northwest of present-day Albuquerque and dating back at least to the 1500's, when it had a population estimated at 6,000. The home of the Zias was later pillaged by Spanish invaders and rebuilt on a smaller scale.

Zia Park owes its $30 million construction budget to the Black Gold Casino, which opened in November 2004 and grossed more than $23 million during its first six months of operation. It works the other way, as well, because by New Mexico law, there could be no Black Gold Casino without the commitment to build a racing facility.

R.D. Hubbard, the principal owner of Black Gold, heads the Zia Park ownership group along with partners Paul Blanchard, Ed Allred, and Bruce Rimbo, the track's general manager.

"This one is a lot of fun, because this is the first new racetrack ever built that combines the gaming and the racing from the start," said Rimbo, a veteran executive of such tracks as Los Alamitos, Ruidoso, and Woodlands.

As of Monday, the finishing touches were still being applied to the racing phase of the facility.

"The casino is on the front part of the building, while the racetrack, the sports bar, and the simulcast areas are on the track side, but they're totally connected," Rimbo noted.

There is a stable area with 1,500 stalls, and track superintendent Dennis Moore designed the racing surface, which has been used for workouts since Aug. 29. Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses will share the programs during the meet.

"This is a blue-collar town," Rimbo said. "It's growing, and it's trying to diversify to not be quite so reliant on the oil and gas business. The racetrack and casino are part of that effort.

"Beyond Hobbs, there's a 787,000 population within a 100-mile radius," Rimbo went on. "I don't know if there's a racing background. There has been a learning curve that we've found in our simulcasting fans. I think they're more horse enthusiasts than anything, which is a real positive.

"The casino has done really well since it opened last November," Rimbo added. "But we're all racing guys from way back, so now is the time to get really excited, because the horses are coming."