Opening day Friday is headlined by the $85,000 Jess Burner Memorial Handicap, for New Mexico-bred quarter horses racing 400 yards.
A field of 12 were entered for the race, with 10 set to go. The morning line favorite Bigg Daddy will be tackling older horses for the first time in his career. The son of Big Daddy Cartel is a 7-time winner with earnings approaching $750,000. His biggest score of 2018 came this past summer in the Zia Derby at Ruidoso Downs. Prior to that, the Wes Giles trainee was second in the All American Futurity and a winner of the Zia Futurity as a 2-year-old.
Bigg Daddy will be piloted by Adrian Ramos and will break from post 8 in the Burner, which goes as the final race of a 9-race opening day program and has a scheduled post time 3:55pm MTN.
The second choice on the morning line, Percyjones is drawn on the rail for the Burner. The gelded son of Jesse James Jr is looking for his third win from his last four starts, including a pair of recent scores at Zia Park this fall. Tanner Thedford is scheduled to ride Percyjones for trainer Trey Wood.
Jesse Lane is the hot horse coming into the Burner. A winner of three straight, the J B Padgett trainee has crossed the finish line no worse than third in nine straight races dating back to July 15, 2017. He took the New Mexcio Classic Cup Derby at Zia Park last November. Rodrigo Vallejo will get back aboard Jesse Lane, who will break from post 9 at odds of 6-to-1.
Stakes Tripleheader on Saturday
The $85,000 New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap is the first of three stakes races on the Saturday card, with a field of 11 statebred fillies and mares set to race 5 1/2 furlongs. The morning line favorite in the contest, Bryn's Fancy Pants, comes into the race off an impressive score last time out in the New Mexico Sprint Distaff Handicap at Zia Park last month.
Trained by Todd Fincher and slated to be ridden again by Roimes Chirinos, the daughter of Southwestern Heat has a sparkling record over the Sunland course, having won three times and never finishing worse than third in six starts here. Listed at 5/2 on the morning line, she will break from post 5 in the Handicap, which goes as the 7th race on the card with a scheduled post time of 3pm MTN.
There is no shortage of upset candidates in the Handicap, including Fast Gator and Susans Violette, both of whom completed the exacta in last month's Zia Park Oaks.
Susans Violette, trained by Kentucky Derby winning conditioner Chip Woolley, has never finished worse than second in five lifetime starts. She will be piloted once again by Enrique Gomez and will break from post 3 in the field as the fourth choice on the morning line at odds of 6-1.
Drawn just to her inside is Fast Gator, trained by Henry Dominguez, and already a stakes winner over the course, having won the La Senora Stakes here last season. She will be piloted by Ry Eikleberry and has been installed as the fifth choice in the wagering at odds of 8 to 1.
The $65,000 KLAQ Handicap is a handicapping and betting treat, with a field of nine open sprinters set to race 5 furlongs.
Hardcore Troubador is the morning line favorite in the race, despite finishing a tiring fourth last time out at Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress, California. The son of Roi Charmant smashed a quarter horse field two starts back over that course and had run a pretty impressive streak of in-the-money finishes last summer at Fresno and this past summer at Del Mar.
Trained by Ed Freeman, Hardcore Troubador will break from post 6 as the 5/2 morning line choice. He is one of many legitimate options in the KLAQ, which will go as the 8th race on the card with a scheduled post time of 3:25pm MTN.
The final event of the Saturday card is the $65,000 Johnie L Jamison Handicap, featuring older statebred thoroughbreds racing 6 1/2 furlongs. The field of 10 runners have combined for 77 wins in their respective careers with purse monies topping $3.34 million.
Thunder Dome appears to have a tactical edge over many of his rivals in the Jamison. A winner in two of his last three starts, he should secure himself a fine trip sitting just off the pace under regular rider Alfredo Juarez, Jr.
A 4-year-old son of Dome, Thunder Dome is a multiple stakes winner and earner of nearly $480,000 for trainer Dallas Barton. He comes off a romping win last time out in the New Mexico Classic Cup at Zia Park and also owns a fine record over this course.
Listed as the 5 to 2 morning line favorite, Thunder Dome breaks from post 5 in the Jamison, which has a scheduled post time of 3:55pm MTN.
Blazing Navarone is a perfect 4-for-4 at Sunland Park, including three stakes wins in the 4 Rivers John Deere as a 2-year-old, then as a 3-year old, picking up back-to-back stakes triumphs in the Red Hedeman Mile and New Mexico Breeders' Derby.
The Henry Dominguez trainee most recently won the New Mexico Classic Cup Derby at Zia Park and will be reunited with his regular pilot Ry Eikleberry. They will break just to the inside of the morning line choice at odds of 8 to 1.
Make sure to check out my best bets on these races, plus selections from Santa Anita and more on "The Fast Track", airing weekends at 10am ET on FOX AM1340/93.9FM and on the I Heart Radio app through our website.
Jessies First Down headlines Championship
Unbeaten in three starts this year, Jessies First Down will look to complete an unblemished year on Sunday when he goes into the starting gate as the likely prohibitive favorite in the $350,000 Grade 1 Championship at Sunland Park, the headline event of a strong opening weekend of racing.
Owned by Ted Abrams and trained by J B Padgett, Jessies First Down lost this race last year as the 3-to-10 favorite, but will be looking to avenge that loss when he is reunited with his regular pilot Rodrigo Vallejo in the 440-yard dash.
Jessies First Down is an 18-time winner from 37 career starts with earnings topping $1.4 million. He won the Albuquerque Fall Championship last time out in September. Before that, he scored two straight wins at Remington Park near Oklahoma City, winning both the Grade 1 Remington Park Invitational and the Grade 1 Leo Stakes.
In 2017, the son of Fdd Dynasty lost only twice from seven starts. In addition to the Championship, he was narrowly defeated in the Remington Park Invitational, a loss he would avenge earlier this spring.
Breaking from post 9 in the 10-horse dash, Jessies First Down has been installed as the 8 to 5 morning line favorite.
His main rival in the Championship may well be Major Bites, who has won five of his last six starts, but was beaten by Jessies First Down in the Albuquerque Fall Championship three starts back.
Since then, the son of Jesse James Jr has scored two straight wins, his most recent coming in the Zia Park Championship earlier this month. He has won 10 times from 26 career starts and has amassed earnings topping $671,000.
Jose Alvarez gets back on board Major Bites for trainer Jimmy Guerra. They will break from post 6 as the 3 to 1 second choice on the morning line.
The Championship is the ninth and final race of a strong Sunday program and has a scheduled post time of 3:55pm MTN.
Just before the running of the Championship, the $85,000 Lou Wooten and Sydney Valentini Handicap will feature older statebred fillies and mares racing 400 yards. Mamacita Cartel will likely go off as the post time choice in the 400 yard dash, looking to win her second straight race and her sixth win from nine starts in 2018.