Is New Mexico Killing Horse Racing in their State?

Horse Racing Radar
Valerie Mellema
Valerie Mellema is a Staff writer for Horse Racing Radar
Sunday, February 21, 2021

New Mexico is one of the only states still limiting residents and visitors on an extreme level nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic started. While the state did adjust later in the year allowing counties to determine their own restrictions, on a whole, the state still restricts residents and visitors. A few of these include:

  • A 14-day quarantine order for out-of-state airport arrivals

  • Mass gatherings (indoor or outdoor) restricted to 5 people.

  • Short-term vacation rentals may only rent to New Mexico residents

  • Hotels limited to 25% capacity

  • All recreational facilities remain closed including swimming pools, movie theaters, bowling alleys, indoor shopping malls, barbershops, hair salons, tattoo parlors and massage parlors and, of course, casinos.

It's that last one that really puts a damper on things for the horse business in New Mexico. The casinos being closed is the reason that the state can't race. There's no purse money being generated from the casinos. Of course, this doesn't apply to the Indian casinos. They are autonomous from the state government. They are allowed to open their casinos, but their casinos aren't associated with the racetracks. New Mexico is the only state in the country that has yet to open commercial casinos. Governor Grisham has given no indication that she will change her mind. All of those restrictions listed above are active through May 15, 2021.

So, while all of the other tracks are operating in the country with no attendance or limited attendance, while other tracks were able to run the biggest races of the year - the Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup - New Mexico tracks remain shuttered for the most part. Even while closed to spectators, many tracks have been running some of the highest handles they've ever seen. Records have been broken across the country because people are still gambling on the horses online and via simulcast.

These restrictions are not only detrimental to the economy, but the residents of New Mexico - there are a lot of jobs in those casinos and racetracks, and it's killing New Mexico horsemen. They are struggling to survive. They are being forced to leave the state for other options like Turf Paradise and Sam Houston in Texas. 

The New Mexico Racing Commission made it even harder for them when they announced Friday that Sunland Park would not open. The entire meet has been canceled. It was supposed to start December 26th, but it was delayed due to the COVID deaths across the border in El Paso. They didn't even give a hint to the horsemen that they were going to cancel the entire meet, which was to run through March 30th. At the monthly meeting of the New Mexico Racing Commission, the Sunland Park racing season cancellation passed by a 4-0 vote. NMRC executive director Ismael Trejo said the decision was based largely on a lack of casino revenue. 

Trainer Lynette Baldwin is a good example of a trainer who stayed behind initially to support Sunland. She turned down stalls at Turf Paradise in anticipation of Sunland Park opening. "I kept hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel," she told Thoroughbred Daily News. "That's all we asked. Just give us a chance." With the announcement of the closure, she's going to take those stalls at Turf Paradise afterall.

New Mexico Horsemen's Association Executive Director Richard Erhard stated, "This was a devastating decision for the horsemen. We had no inkling that they would out and out cancel the meet. This is another nail in the coffin of New Mexico racing." Erhard says that the tracks have the option of opening, but will have to do so with drastically reduced purses. He says that the horsemen want to run, no matter what the purse schedule looks like.

Last spring, after a two month absence, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham allowed them to reopen without spectators and Ruidoso Downs opened on May 22nd. Ruidoso was able to run their summer racing meet last summer with no fans. 

Albuquerque and Zia Park also ran fall meets with reduced rates and purses. Zia Park's meet was forced to stop for several weeks in November, however, due to a statewide public health order. All racing was conducted without the casinos open.

Sunland Park reopened their simulcast operations in June, but it was open just a few days before being forced to close again. With casinos closed, Sunland management has argued that racing cannot run without casino funds for purses. This also means that the Sunland Park (G3), a Kentucky Derby prep race, will be canceled for the second year in a row. Many horsemen think they should be able to run no matter what they have to drop the purses to. They want the option to run for a few thousand dollars if they can. 

Horse racing in New Mexico is largely a family affair and tradition, like in many other states. Generation after generation have raced there and trainers, like Dick Cappellucci, may be enjoying a solid meet at Turf Paradise this year, but it's nothing like racing on your home turf. "The problem," he says, "is that we depend on the money from the slot machines for our purses. It accounts for about 85 to 90% of our revenues."

With the shutdowns, the Commission has allowed some of the rules to be skirted. Technically, the tracks are required to run for the casinos to operate. Technically, if they refuse to run, they should also lose their casino license. It's a complicated situation.

The shutdown is also making it difficult for the breeding industry as well. With the uncertainty of whether or not horse racing in New Mexico will be able to survive at all, what is the point in breeding horses there? If there are no New Mexico races, there's no reason to breed New Mexico-bred horses. There are no breeder incentives without races. Breeders will have better luck sending their mares out of state and participating in the breeders incentive programs elsewhere. If the breeders and trainers leave the state, they may never come back.

Ruidoso, SunRay, The Downs at Albuquerque, and Zia Park in Hobbs all have 2021 dates scheduled, but whether or not those race dates will happen is up in the air. Ruidoso is historically more racing friendly, they are home to the famous All American Futurity for Quarter Horses, afterall. Horsemen are optimistic that they will run. Whether or not tracks like Zia Park will be able to operate in the fall will all depend on whether or not the Governor changes her mind about opening casinos. 


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