Horse racing fans -- particularly this time of year -- can be quite fickle.
For a lot of grizzled horseplayers, this isn't the time for the joy and splendor of the holiday season, not when they're busy pouring over past performance lines and jockey-trainer statistics trying to figure out how deep they need to go in the third leg of the late pick four.
So when Sunland Park opens its doors for the 59th season of live racing on Friday, it will provide a much-needed escape for those horseplayers and enthusiasts who want to spend their holiday season humming Christmas carols while nestled in the grandstand of the racetrack.
The 2017-18 racing season comes with a great deal of anticipation, and for good reason.
"A lot of trainers point their top runners for this season," said Sunland Park marketing director Eric Alwan. "We're the only track going in the southwest and with the purses as high as they are, our season is attractive to a lot of key horsemen."
Alwan also pointed out that for horseplayers and fans alike, the opportunity for competitive wagering opportunities will be enhanced by increased field sizes.
"This weekend, in particular will be one of the best we've had in the past 10 years," Alwan said.
In addition to the increased awareness of the sport in the state of New Mexico, Sunland Park's most recent season produced some of the biggest national headlines of the racing year.
Calumet Farms-owned Hence caught a lot of eyes when he arrived at Sunland Park and scored an impressive win in the marquee race of the season, the $800,000 Grade 3 Sunland Derby, as did runner-up and locally based Conquest Mo Money, who followed up his phenomenal season at Sunland to finish second in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park before running in the Preakness Stakes, the second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown.
Conquest Mo Money, trained by Miguel Hernandez for Judge Lanier Racing, won both the Riley Allison Stakes and Mine That Bird Derby at Sunland Park before his second-place finish in the Grade 3 Sunland Derby.
Hence, who shipped in for trainer Steve Asmussen, scored a rousing win in the 1 1/8 mile Sunland Derby under jockey Alfredo Juarez, Jr., and would follow the Triple Crown campaign before picking up another graded stakes win later in the year, traveling to Prairie Meadows to take the Grade 3 Iowa Derby.
Irap, the fourth place finisher in the Sunland Derby, also came back to win multiple stakes races, including his next start, scoring a stunning upset in the prestigious Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky.
After finishing off the board in the Kentucky Derby, Irap picked up back-to-back stakes wins over the summer, taking both the Ohio Derby at Thistledown and the Indiana Derby at Indiana Grand.
"The success of the Sunland Derby will open the door for local horsemen," Alwan said. "The branding of the race will give our area horsemen an opportunity to compete in more open races."
Racing will be conducted on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday basis through Tuesday, April 17, 2018 with first post time each day set for 12:30 p.m. (MTN).
Evans holds strong hand in KLAQ Handicap
Trainer Justin Evans will saddle three runners in the first of two stakes races on Saturday at Sunland Park, the $65,000 KLAQ Handicap, at a distance of 5 furlongs.
Redneck Humor (above) has been installed as the 3-to-1 morning line favorite for the race, trying to bounce back after a second-place finish in the Zia Park Sprint Championship last month. That loss snapped a six-race win streak for the 6-year-old son of Da Stoops who has become one of the barn's most reliable runners, especially at Sunland Park, where he has won four times from seven starts.
"He's really been the staple of our barn for awhile now," Evans recalled. "He definitely keeps you on your toes as a trainer and for those around him."
Redneck Humor will break from the 9 hole in the 10-horse field for Saturday's KLAQ Handicap, which goes as Sunland's ninth race with a scheduled post time of 3:50 p.m. (MTN), and is scheduled to be ridden by Miguel Perez.
Mt Veeder, the second choice on the morning line at odds of 4-to-1, has been an equally captivating story for the Evans team.
The 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Ghostzapper made his debut for Evans earlier this year at Sunland Park, and though it took him a few starts to get acclimated, he seems to have found himself now, having won six of his last seven starts, including an upset score -- over Redneck Humor no less -- in the aforementioned Zia Park Sprint Championship.
"He woke up a lot for us earlier this year when we started running him in shorter races," Evans said. "We may have asked him to do a bit too much early on, but now he's got some of that confidence back and he's shown us he wants to go a bit longer."
Mt Veeder will break from the rail in the KLAQ, with his regular pilot Alfredo Juarez, Jr. aboard.
Not to be forgotten in the strong Evans triumvirate is Concord Fast, a four-time winner and earner of nearly $250,000.
A West Virginia-bred son of Concord Point owned by Teed off Stables, Concord Fast won the 2016 Riley Allison Stakes, and most recently is coming off a big win against allowance rivals at Zia Park last month.
Concord Fast has been named the third choice on the morning line at odds of 9-to-2 and will break from post position 8 under last season's leading jockey Ry Eikleberry.
Running Dragon looks to remain perfect at Sunland
Quarter horses will take center stage in Saturday's finale, the $85,000 Jess Burner Memorial Handicap, for state-bred shortliners racing 400 yards.
By By JJ LLC Stables' Running Dragon (above), an earner of nearly $700,000 and a perfect 6-for-6 at Sunland Park, will go to the gate as the morning line favorite for trainer Juan Gonzalez and jockey Adrian Ramos.
A 3-year-old Zulu Dragon filly, Running Dragon is an 11-time winner in her 17-race career including stakes wins at Sunland last season in the New Mexico Horse Breeders Association Stakes, the Shue Fly and Sunburst Stakes.
Running Dragon comes off a powerful win last time out in the New Mexico Filly and Mare Championship last month at Zia Park, snapping a four-race losing streak.
Running Dragon will break from post 9 in the Burner and has been installed as the 3-to-1 morning line favorite.
An interesting contender in the Burner could well be Major Bites, looking to win back-to-back races for the first time since he accomplished that same feat earlier this year at Sunland Park.
A 4-year-old gelded son of Jesse James Jr, Major Bites scored an upset win in the New Mexico Classic Cup Championship at Zia Park on Oct. 29. The five-time winner and earner of more than $228,000 will break from post 3 in the Burner and is the third choice on the morning line at odds of 5-to-1 under jockey Jose Montoya.
The Jess Burner Memorial Handicap is the tenth and final race on the Saturday card with a scheduled post time of 4:15 p.m. (MTN)
For best bets and the latest information on the sport of horse racing, tune in to "The Fast Track", presented by SunRay Park and Casino. With a variety of handicappers and racing analysts, The Fast Track airs locally on the radio dial -- weekends at 10am ET -- on FOX AM1340/93.9FM and is also streamed live via the I Heart Radio app at foxsports1340.com
Fincher appears to hold aces in 'Commission Handicap
Diabolical Dame (above), a 15-time winner and earner of more than $674,000 in her racing career, may well be one of the shortest-priced favorites this weekend when she goes postward in Sunday's $85,000 New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap.
The 6 furlong sprint features a field of nine runners, with trainer Todd Fincher saddling five of them, including Diabolical Dame, hoping to continue to reign supreme among the older state-bred fillies and mares with her fourth consecutive win.
Racing for owners Joe Dee Brooks, Scott Bryant, and Derrol Hubbard, Diabolical Dame is one of the hardest-hitting thoroughbreds in New Mexico's rich history, having only missed the board in two of her 24 lifetime starts. Her only blemish in 2017 came over this track last March when she finished second in the La Coneja Stakes.
A 5-year-old mare by Diabolical, she has finished first or second in all five of her starts over this track.
Breaking from the outside post, Diabolical Dame is scheduled to be ridden by Roimes Chirinos and has been installed as the 5-to-2 morning line favorite in the Commission Handicap, which will be run as the eighth race with a scheduled post time of 3:29 p.m. (MTN).
Among Fincher's other starters in the Commission Handicap is the 4-to-1 second choice on the morning line Tijuana, a six-time winner from 20 career starts and earner of more than $207,000.
Tijuana just missed to Diabolical Dame two starts back in the New Mexico Sprint Distaff at Zia Park on Oct. 29 before finishing fifth in her most recent start in the Zia Distaff last month. In her most recent win, the 4-year-old Devon Lane filly beat allowance company at Zia Park on Oct. 10.
Tijuana will once be again be ridden by Jorge Carreno and will break from post 6 in the Commission Handicap.
As a horseplayer, if you're trying to beat the stacked hand brought into the race by Fincher, perhaps you might consider My Bikini Fell Off, trained by Bart Hone and listed as the third choice on the morning line at odds of 9-to-2.
A 6-year-old Elusive Jazz mare owned by Brian Mundell, My Bikini Fell Off owns eight wins from 27 career starts with earnings approaching $390,000. She won the Peppers Pride Stakes at a distance of one mile here last February, but has lost three straight since that time. She owns seven wins from 16 starts at Sunland Park and will be ridden by Ry Eikleberry from post 2 in the Commission Handicap.
Jamison Handicap looks to be wide-open affair
The Sunday finale may prove to be well worth the wait, as a dozen New Mexico-bred older thoroughbred sprinters race 6 1/2 furlongs in the $85,000 Johnie L Jamison Handicap.
Once again, trainer Todd Fincher appears to have a strong group of runners in the event, including 7-to-2 morning line choice Forger (above), winner most recently of the New Mexico Sprint Championship at Zia Park and a six-time winner from 21 career starts.
Forger, owned by R.D. Hubbard, is a 4-year-old gelded son of Attila's Storm with lifetime earnings topping $260,000. He will break from the inside post under Roimes Chirinos in the Jamison, which goes as the ninth race with a scheduled post time of 3:55 p.m. (MTN).
Fincher's three other scheduled starters in the Jamison include longshot Way Nifty, as well Hit a Lick and Go for a Stroll.
Trainer Justin Evans will send out a pair of runners, including Citizen Geller, second choice on the morning line at odds of 4-to-1. Named in honor of Sunland Park and Woodbine track announcer Robert Geller, the 5-year-old grey gelded son of Pro Prado has won three of his last four starts, just missing to Forger in the New Mexico Sprint Championship last time out.
"He's a really classy horse," Evans said of Citizen Geller. "I thought he ran too well to lose the other day, but he can be a bit quirky to ride."
Citizen Geller, an eight-time winner and earner of more than $336,000 for UKUSA Stables, drew post 9 in the Jamison and will be ridden for the first time by Ry Eikleberry.
Fans looking for a longshot opportunity may want to consider longshot Mr. Mooch, a perfect 2-for-2 at Sunland and a five-time winner from eight career starts.
Mr. Mooch ran a better-than-looked third last time out in the New Mexico Classic Derby at Zia Park last October. Prior to that, he won a pair of stakes races last summer at Ruidoso Downs.
Trained by Michael Barber and slated to be ridden by J. C. Villanueva, the 3-year-old son of Tin Can Sailor will break from the 10 post in the Jamison.
Photos courtesy of Coady Photography