When the nominations were received for the Sunland Derby, to be run March 28 at Sunland Park in New Mexico, there were some impressive names on the list. And for good reason.
For one thing, the race is worth $800,000, making it the second richest prep race in North America (the Arkansas Derby, gr. I, is worth $1 million) for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). But more importantly—in this case there actually is something more important than the large purse—is that the race is graded for the first time in 2010.
That fact is important because the Derby starting gate is limited to 20 starters, and the determining factor for who starts and who doesn’t if more than 20 are entered is earnings in graded stakes.
There were 130 nominations received so far—there is still a late nomination deadline—and names like champion Lookin At Lucky, unbeaten Caracortado, and multiple graded stakes winner Rule are on the list.
Caracortado is trained by Mike Machowsky, who won the race last year with Kelly Leak. Of course finishing fourth was Mine That Bird, who went on to win the Derby. Bob Baffert sent out Mythical Power to run second, the third-place finisher was trained by Doug O’Neill, and the fifth- and sixth-place finishers were trained by Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen, respectively.
Last year they were running for the money; this year they will run for the money and the grade.
There are thanks due to many for Sunland hosting a major Kentucky Derby prep that is now graded:
• WinStar Farm, which sponsored the race when it began in 2003 with a $500,000 purse. That purse helped attract the horses that helped the race get graded eight years later.
• Track owner Stan Fulton, who knows a thing or two about slot machines, which were approved for New Mexico tracks in 1999. Sunland now has 700 machines operating 365 days a year.
• The politicians in Texas, which like those in Kentucky have been unwilling to help the Thoroughbred industry get on a level playing field with its neighboring states. Sunland is basically a suburb of El Paso, Texas. The slots at Sunland are the reason the track’s average daily purses have risen to $250,000 a day. Last year on Sunland Derby day, the track recorded its largest handle ($2,690,130) on its live card in the 50-year history of the facility.
• Dr. Leonard Blach and Mark Allen, who purchased Mine That Bird and had trainer Chip Woolley point him toward the Sunland Derby. Forget that he didn’t win that race. He vanned from there and won the big race at Churchill Downs, putting his name in the history books.
There aren’t that many success stories these days in racing.
The Sunland Derby is one.