New Mexico Racing Is Able To Mine Those Slots

by Ed Meyer

posted on May 17, 2009 in General Discussion | No Comments >>

Chip Woolley says that if it weren’t for legislative action taken in New Mexico a decade ago, he would not have had Mine That Bird to take to — and win — the Kentucky Derby.

Woolley said New Mexico’s greatly enhanced purses made it feasible for owners Leonard Blach and Mark Allen to pay $400,000 for Mine That Bird last year. In fact, they purchased the gelding with the $800,000 Su1nland Derby in mind.

“In New Mexico the legislature finally gave us slot machines at the racetracks and protected horse racing when they did it,” he said. “… It has improved our program. I wouldn’t have this horse if it wasn’t for that.”

“Churchill just cut purses and cut a day (per week) of racing. That’s terrible. It’s the standard to the industry. So you hate to see that, and hopefully these other places will … stop watching their money leave their state.”

Blach explained that 20 percent of the income from slots at New Mexico tracks goes into purses, with the rest divided among the state, the tracks and the breeding industry.

Woolley’s New Mexico circuit goes from Sunland Park (near El Paso, Texas) to SunRay Park in Farmington (currently racing) to Ruidoso Downs to Zia Park and back to Sunland. There also is racing at the Downs at Albuquerque, and a track is scheduled to open next year in Raton.

Blach says when he arrived in New Mexico in 1972, purses were $800 or $1,200. Now 2-year-old maidens run for $28,000 or $32,000, he said.

“It was hanging by a hair,” he said of New Mexico racing. “Had it not been for slots, we wouldn’t exist right now.”

Blach said all the New Mexico tracks are having Preakness simulcast parties for Mine That Bird.

“The governor called us; he’s making a big deal out of it, too,” he said of Bill Richardson, a former presidential candidate. “It’s really turned that state on. Everybody is excited.”

Woolley said he’s heard from “hundreds” of folks back home — “everybody that does not owe me money.”

No horse based in New Mexico had ever won the Kentucky Derby before Mine That Bird. In fact, 1998 winner Real Quiet was the first Derby starter to have even raced in that state, going 0 for 2 there.

“I must have watched it 100 times, making sure it was real,” said New Mexico trainer Joel Marr. “Until about the quarter pole, it was just a dream. Then the last 24 seconds it went from a dream to, ‘I think this could happen.’ ”

Marr trained New Mexico-bred Peppers Pride, who won a modern-day-record 19 consecutive races to retire unbeaten last year. He said the program for New Mexico-breds is so lucrative now that it made no sense to race elsewhere.

“I’m extremely proud of what she did … but you kind of had to go look for it to follow it,” he said of Peppers Pride. “Mine That Bird, there was no way around it. Everybody saw it; everybody knows about it. I think it will do more for awareness not just to New Mexico but every smaller jurisdiction in the country. It gives everybody that little taste of, ‘We could do that. Look at them; they did it. We’ve got a shot.’ ”

A major beneficiary is the Sunland Derby, which has tried to achieve graded status for five years. Not only did Mine That Bird finish fourth in the Sunland Derby, but fifth-place Advice went on to win Keeneland’s Grade II Coolmore Lexington before competing in the Derby. Runner-up Mythical Power won the Grade III Lone Star Derby in his next start.

“The people who grade these races have to really take a long look and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to give this a grade,’ ” Woolley said. “They shouldn’t even start as a Grade III; it ought to be a Grade II.”

Sunland and Zia Park offer some of the largest purses in the Southwest at more than $200,000 a day.

Woolley said he expects his gelding to race again in New Mexico someday. SunRay racing director Lonnie Barber said he’d welcome that, “but I’m hoping he’s good enough that he can stay back there with the big boys.”