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After COVID-19 pause, horse racing returns to New Mexico Friday at Farmington's SunRay Park

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After a long winter with no horse racing at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino, the state of New Mexico is eager to get back to work with live racing. 

Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino cancelled its meet as the casino stayed closed for a several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The casino is now open. Casinos across New Mexico are a key contributor to the purse structure of horse racing. 

With Sunland Park unable to open, that left jockeys, trainers and horses left without a winter track in New Mexico to compete at. That left many horsemen to scatter to Turf Paradise in Arizona, Sam Houston Park in Texas and other tracks around the country. 

But optimism is back for New Mexico horsemen. Racing at SunRay Park and Casino begins Friday in Farmington with an 18-day meet, which will have live racing three days a week on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Casinos across New Mexico at the state's racetrack have opened up and are starting to rebuild the purse money needed to have a horse racing meet.

Fans, officials excited for return of live horse races

"I think everyone is excited to finally see live racing again in New Mexico," New Mexico Racing Commission Executive Director Izzy Trejo said. "The purses at SunRay Park will be strong with $151,000 per day and that's up from $85,000-90,000 that was expected."

Longtime trainers Nancy Summers, Todd Fincher and Donna McArthur are looking forward to the start of horse racing again in New Mexico. 

All three will have a presence at SunRay Park and eventually at Ruidoso Race Track and Casino, which is set to start on Memorial Day week and is already welcoming horses onto its track for workouts. 

"I'll have a few horses at SunRay but for some trainers they will have horses in training and it wasn't enough time to get horses ready for the SunRay meet," Fincher said. "But it's good to see racing getting started again and hopefully this is a sign of good things to come. It's nice to have a presence in New Mexico."

How COVID-19 affected New Mexico horse trainers

Fincher sent several horses to Sam Houston Park during the winter and will keep a stable of 25 horses at Texas' Lone Star Park, which begins its meet later this spring. 

Summers spent a good time of her winter racing horses in Arizona, but will be in New Mexico for the spring and summer. She will have horses compete at SunRay, Ruidoso and Albuquerque, which will have a shortened meet in the summer. 

"It's been tough on lots of people, but now we are seeing things get better and the return of some normalcy," Summers said. "We've lost some people in the industry, it's a hard industry when there wasn't any racing this winter in the state. It's expensive to get up and move to another place."

Added McArthur: "We have to continue to move forward and look to get things improving again. Casinos are open again and with Ruidoso planning to open in late May, they are already working hard at making the track look good and have a really good surface to run over. There is hope on the horizon. It was tough with Zia Park last year after Ruidoso finished because there was a shutdown for a couple of weeks and there was uncertainty. Then not having a Sunland meet was a tough blow to everyone. But we just have to continue to be patient and build on the positives."

While tracks at SunRay, Ruidoso, Albuquerque and Zia have their dates set for the coming months, Sunland Park officials say they will likely set dates in June. Typically, Sunland Park runs from late December until mid-April, but with some uncertainty left due to the pandemic, it's unclear how many race dates Sunland Park will apply for. 

SunRay Park and Casino will open with various protocols in place for racing such as a limit of two people per horse in the paddock area, only essential personnel will be allowed in the barn area, there will be temperature checks for those entering the grounds. Any employee or customer with a temperature of 100.4 or higher will be denied access to the premises. For more information on the reopening COVID plan at SunRay Park go to

"We are looking forward to getting racing started again," said SunRay Park General Manager Brad Boehm. "We've had just a few weeks to get organized to get the meet going. But we feel we are in a good position to get things started. We feel we have all the right procedures in place to have a good meet. New Mexico didn't have live racing for a few months and we just want to get word out that (we) have racing and we have a good product."

Post time for racing will be 2:15 p.m. each Friday, Saturday and Sunday until May 30 and admission is free. 

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Felix F. Chavez may be reached at 915-546-6167;; @Fchavezeptimes on Twitter.