Sunland to honor Mine That Bird with statue ©

 

 By Ray Sanchez

 

 

Mine That Bird, who brought national fame to New Mexico horseracing, will be honored at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino throughout its 51st thoroughbred and quarter horse live racing season which begins Friday.

 

The track will hold live racing on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Tuesdays through April 20 except on two occasions. There will be racing on Wednesday, Dec. 23, and Wednesday, Feb. 17. First post time for the first part of the season will be 12:15 p.m.

Mine That Bird became the first horse to run in the Sunland Derby then go on to win the Kentucky Derby. That happened last May. It was not only a big boost to the racing industry in New Mexico but it put Sunland on the path to a possible grading of its own Derby. After all, the best Mine That Bird, trained by Chip Woolley, could do in the Sunland Derby was finish fourth.

 

Sunland is so grateful to Mine That Bird and its owners, Double Eagle Ranch and Buena Suerte Equine, that the track has not only put up photos of the Kentucky champ all over its simulcast room in the Turf Club but had a full-size statue made of him. The statue, still in the making at this writing, will welcome fans while standing on the grass in front of the clubhouse.

 

There will be other things new at the track this season, including a better-lit scoreboard and better TVs. There had been complaints that the numbers on the scoreboard were hard to read so general manager Harold Payne ordered a new lighting system to the tune of $200,000. The new system will beam a much stronger light and make things easier to read.  Also, the track has replaced some of the old televisions sets throughout the stands with flat-screen, high definition ones.

 

Highlighting the first weekend of live racing will be the $125,000 Jess Burner Memorial Handicap for three year old and older quarter horses at 400 yards on Saturday.

As usual, most of the Southwest’s top quarter horse and thoroughbred trainers and jockeys will be on the grounds during the season to compete for the $18.5 million in purses the track is offering.

 

Chris Hartman, last season’s leading thoroughbred trainer, will be on hand as will former champion Henry Dominguez. Jon Arnett, who finished second last year, will also be competing. Other notables include Joel Marr, Jose R. Gonzalez Jr., Steve Asmussen, Bart Hone, Jeff Mullins, Todd Fincher and H. Ray Ashford Jr.

Heading the quarter horse trainer contingent will be defending champion Alonso Orozco plus Ralph Muntz and Wes Giles.

 

Among jockeys returning will be Ken Tohill and Alejandro Medellin. Tohill won the thoroughbred jockey championship last season with 83 victories but Medellin won more races overall. Medellin won 72 races on thoroughbreds and 41 on quarter horses for a total of 113. He was second in the thoroughbred division and tied for first in the quarter horse bracket with Esgar Ramirez and Freddie L. Martinez.

Mine That Bird won’t be running at Sunland until the spring but there will be plenty of big races to keep the fans’ interest before then.

 

Eric Alwan, director of publicity, reports the track’s 2009-10 season will have 30 stakes races worth $100,000 or more. That includes the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks, the $100,000-added Harry Henson Handicap, the $100,000 guaranteed New Mexico Breeders' Derby, the $100,000 guaranteed New Mexico Breeders’ Oaks and the $125,000 guaranteed La Coneja Stakes.

 

Other top races include:

The ninth running of the $350,000 Grade 1 Championship on Saturday, Dec. 26. Three-time world record holder First Moonflash finished first in last year’s championship

The $100,000-added Riley Allison Futurity traditionally lures top two-year-old thoroughbred talent. The 6 and 1/2 furlong feature will be run on Tuesday, Dec. 30.

New Mexico-bred quarter horses will compete for $125,000 in the Jess Burner Memorial Handicap on Dec. 12, the Challenger Six Handicap at 870 yards on Dec. 19, the Lou Wooten Handicap on Dec. 20 and the NMHBA Quarter Horse Stakes on Feb. 21. Foals of 2007 compete in the $300,000 estimated Shue Fly Stakes at 400 yards on Jan. 2, 2010.