09/05/2013 4:58PM

Zia Park opening meet with new stakes, new bets


Zia Park in Hobbs, N.M., has created a $300,000 race for 3-year-old fillies, updated its wagering format, renovated its racing surface, and added two cards to its schedule in key changes made for the 56-date meet that opens on Saturday. The season will run through Dec. 3.

The new Zia Park Oaks, 1 1/16-mile race to be run Nov. 24, is the centerpiece of a stakes schedule offering a record $3.9 million in purses to both Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. The race will be showcased on a new festival type of program, called Land of Enchantment Day. The card of five Thoroughbred stakes worth a combined $850,000 includes the Zia Park Derby, a 1 1/16-mile race boosted in value from $150,000 to $200,000.

“We’re trying to get graded stakes races here,” said Fred Hutton, director of racing operations for Zia. “We’re going to be aggressive to get those good 3-year-olds here.”

Hutton hopes packaging major stakes on a single card will lure owners and trainers from around the country. He said that with several divisions of races on offer that afternoon, it might be more appealing for outfits to ship to Zia. The program also includes the $150,000 Zia Park Distance Championship, a 1 1/8-mile race for 3-year-olds and up.

“The races looked like a solid fit on that weekend,” Hutton said. “It looks like Zia will really be a focal point.”

Other highlights of the stakes schedule include the $2 million New Mexico Cup, a program of statebred stakes for Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses, which has been expanded to 12 races this year with the addition of the $120,000 Filly and Mare Sprint for Thoroughbreds. In other notable stakes this meet, the Grade 1, $150,000 Zia Park Championship for Quarter Horses on Nov. 23 will award its winner a berth into the Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos, said Hutton.

Purses at Zia are projected to average $250,000 a program, he said, about the same as in 2012.

The wagering format has been freshened. Zia has added the Hobbs Hi 5 Jackpot, which is similar to the super high five, said Hutton. It requires bettors to pick the first five finishers in the last race in exact order, or the pool rolls over. Hutton said there is no consolation. The bet has a 50-cent minimum.

Zia has also added a pick four starting in the first race, and it has a 50-cent minimum. In other changes, the track has lowered the minimums on its daily doubles, from $2 to 50 cents, and on its pick threes, from $1 to 50 cents.

“This is our ninth season, and we said, ‘Maybe it’s time for us to kind of change things up with the wagering format,” said Hutton.

The racing surface has undergone a renovation over the past six weeks under consultant Tony Martinez Sr., with organic material added, said Hutton. There is also a new maintenance program in place, Hutton said, with the hiring of a new track superintendent, Tony Martinez Jr., who serves in the same capacity as Sunland.

Hutton, 56, is in his third year with Zia, which is owned by Penn Gaming. He oversees the racing side of operations at the track, which also has a casino. Rafael Verde is the vice president and general manager of Zia, having joined the track in the third quarter of 2012.

Hutton said Zia on Saturday will break ground on a 154-room hotel that will open next year. It is a five-story facility, he said, and there are balconies facing the track.