Susie Prather isn’t happy. Denny Crozier is ticked.
Prather and Crozier are local horse breeders who feel like their business and other local businesses are being squeezed because horse racing at Zia Park and racetracks throughout the state has been progressively cut back in recent years.
That constrains the businesses of breeders, trainers, local restaurants and hotels. It’s been a gradual decline in live racing that by next year will have chiseled the number of race days down by 100 in an eight-year span – from 288 in 2015 to 188 in 2023.
But the race dates for Zia Park have recently dropped precipitously – from 48 in the 2021-22 season to 30 scheduled for the 2022-23 season.
“Every year in August they go through the dates and everybody’s race schedule,” Prather said, “and the track gives them the dates they want to run, and the commission looks at it and approves it. They’ve cut our days continually. … They chip away at the days, then people don’t want to breed horses, and before long you don’t have a business anymore.
“In my opinion they don’t want to mess with it,” Prather added, “because they have to hire seasonal help, they have to keep the track ready, it’s just extra work for them.”
Live race dates statewide were at 347 in 1994, 344 the following year, and though the dates dipped into the 200s during the mid-to-late 1990s (even below 200 in 1998) and early-to-mid 2000s, they were at 303 in 2006 and an even 300 in 2009.
There were 288 live races every year from 2012-15, and the number was still up at 284 in 2016 and 274 in 2017. In 2018 it dipped slightly to 263.
The 2019-20 season, scheduled to run from December through April, was cut off beginning the second week of March due to COVID-19, and there were a total of 220 races as a result. Also due to COVID, the 2020-21 season was curtailed to 180 days.
The 2021-22 racing season, though, was down to 206, with COVID no longer a major impact. There were 55 race dates scheduled for Sunland Park, 18 for SunRay Park, 47 for Ruidoso Downs, 21 for the Downs at Albuquerque, 17 for the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque, and 48 for Zia Park in Hobbs.
The release of the 2022-23 state racing schedule reveals that Sunland Park remains at 55 days, a slight uptick at Sun-Ray Park from 18 to 21, Ruidoso Downs down slightly to 46, the Downs at Albuquerque down just a bit to 19, and the New Mexico State Fair remaining at 17.
Zia Park, though, has had that big plummet down from 48 to 30, a staggering 38 percent from last year.
Attempts by the News-Sun to speak to someone at Zia Park about the decrease in races were unsuccessful as of Monday.
Casinos were allowed to operate on Native American land with the proviso that there was horse racing on those sites. The statute was intended to help the racetracks because gaming was impacting the tracks financially. That helping hand has been lessened for local breeders, trainers and businesses, as indicated by the drop in Zia’s live races.
“It was for economic development,” Prather said, “and the track has taken that away from us. People aren’t going to move here for that. In previous years everybody – the racers the trainers, the groomers – they’d move here (for race season). Now your hotels, your restaurants, your feed stores, parks, all of these places are going to be affected by it. It’s wrong to these horsemen, it’s wrong to the trainers, it’s wrong to the horse racing industry. The horse racing industry is the third largest in the state of New Mexico.”
“What it all amounts to is we have a racing commission that has sold out to the casinos,” Crozier said. “The deal is, our governor appoints these racing commissions, and they will tell her who they want on the commission. These casinos really don’t like the horse racing, but the only reason they got (permission for) the casino is because of the horse racing.
“The long and the short of it is they cut days,” Crozier added. “And they get away with it because the commission doesn’t make them obey the rules. It’s right in the contract – if there is not a racetrack running, all the casinos in the state shut down. There has to be a horse race going every week or the casinos have to shut down. They said, ‘Hell with that. We don’t like that rule so we’re not going to live up to it.’ And the commission says, ‘Oh, that’s fine.’ More money changes hands in the racehorse business than any business in the state other than the oil field and government. We do more than the dairies, and they’re trying their damndest to wipe it out.”
Crozier says that the racing at Farmington – and the economic effect that goes with it – might be swallowed up by Albuquerque next year, if a proposal is approved.
“That’s what they applied for, for next year,” Crozier said. “I don’t think they’re going to get away with it because there’s too much stink over it, but that’s what they want.”
Ruidoso Downs runs at least three days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and hosts three major, million-dollar derbies – Ruidoso, Rainbow and the All-American Trails.
“Here’s the kicker,” Crozier said, “they’re going to take $2 million from Hobbs for the Ruidoso racing. There’s another thing that’s illegal – the money made at the track is supposed to stay at that track. People love going up there to hang out in the mountains. There’s no money up there (for racing), but if they can steal enough money from the tracks down here they’ll do it. The hell with the restaurants and tracks in Hobbs.”
And, Crozier says, if the siphoning of money and racing days from Lea County to the northern tracks continues, it’s going to force the breeders to do less business.
Crozier speaks from personal experience.
“I had as many as 15 mares,” he said, “but because these guys cut these days I’m down to only three mares. You can’t afford to keep them in training if you can’t run them. I just had to cut back on the horses because I don’t see any chance to turn this around. I would bet within five years there will be no more horse racing in this state if the thing continues to go where its going. Five years it’ll be gone.”