Death takes one of Sunland’s top race officials ©

by ray Sanchez

 

The euphoria over the grading of the Sunland Derby and the opening weekend of live racing at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino was damped by the sudden death of one of the track’s key employees.

 

Charlene Chapman, a cherished member of the pari-mutuel's department for more than 30 years, began working at the track as a teller but rose to the position of mutuels supervisor. She became ill a day before live racing began on Friday of opening weekend and passed away two days later on Saturday.

 

“It was a shock to all of us,” mutuels manager Steve Fedunak, said. “She was an outstanding worker and was very well liked throughout the track. Many of our tellers were in tears when they heard the news of her death. She was a dedicated person who knew the ins and outs of our mutuels department. She kept track of all aspects of wagering and getting the paperwork done and had a close relationship with our ticket sellers. She will be very hard to replace.”

 

Sunland general manager Harold Payne, who worked with her for nearly all the years she was at the track, said, “We will all miss her.”

Director of operations Dustin Dix added, “She was highly respected by everyone.”

 

There was another dampening factor at the track on opening week: The handle on opening day.  Sunland Park had announced it was going to open its 2009-10 live racing season on Saturday, Dec. 12. It changed that later to Friday, Dec. 11 because trials for one of its quarter horse futurities had to be accommodated. A lot of fans showed up on Friday but the wagering took a huge drop, 16 percent, in comparison to last season’s opening day.

Business got better on opening Saturday and even better on opening Sunday but still the track’s handle was down over the weekend.

It was not unexpected. Tracks all over the country are still hurting. One track reported an astonishing drop in betting of 50 percent during the summer.

 

There were encouraging signs at Sunland that things will continue to get better, however. Unlike other tracks where races are usually comprised of six or even four or five horse fields, Sunland had some full fields on opening weekend, especially on Sunday. There were even a few races with 12 horses competing.

 

Live racing at Sunland will continue on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays through April 20 except for this week. There will be racing on Wednesday, Feb. 23, but not on Friday, Christmas Day.

First post time will be 12:25 p.m. until February when the programs will change from 11 to 12 races and first post time will be 12:55 p.m.

Last weekend’s action was highlighted by three $125,000 stakes races.

On Saturday, amazing First Moonflash took the $125,000 Jess Burner Memorial Handicap. Ridden by Alejandro Medellin, the overall jockey winner at Sunland last season, First Moonflash posted her 10th victory in 11 tries.  Time for the 400 yards was 18.87, a 102 speed index, despite carrying 130 pounds. First Moonflash is owned by Pierre and Leslie Amestoy, Jr. and Maria G. Gonzalez.

 

The New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap and the $125,000 Johnie L. Jamison Stakes were held on Sunday. Cattleman Prospect, one of the toughest competitors in New Mexico horse racing, won the Jamison Stakes by flying down the stretch under Medellin and nipping Gold Assure by the smallest of noses. The winning time for the six and a half furlongs was 1:17.19. Cattleman Prospect, owned by Ramon Gonzalez Jr. and Cody Kelley of Albuquerque, paid $8.80 to win.

Defending thoroughbred jockey champion Ken Tohill guided Happy Me to an upset in the New Mexico Racing Commission Handicap. The three-year-old filly, owned by Rita Danley and trained by husband Fred Danley, was running against older fillies and was let go at odds of 9 to 1. Her time for the six furlongs was 1:10.53.

 

Featured this weekend is the $125,000 Challenger Six Handicap at 870 yards for three year old and older quarter horses and thoroughbreds on Saturday and the $125,000 Lou Wooten Handicap at 400 yards on