Eric Alwan is publicity director of Sunland Park, located just outside El Paso, Texas. The New Mexico track opens Dec. 11 and its 2009-10 meeting runs through April 20. The meet’s signature race, the $800,000 Sunland Park Derby, was recently upgraded to grade III status for 2010, meaning the road to the Triple Crown now leads through the great Southwest.
This spring Mine That Bird brought national attention to Sunland Park while winning the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) at 50-1 after a fourth-place finish in the Sunland Derby.
We caught up with Alwan this week as he was preparing for opening day and asked him five questions:
Your meet opens Dec. 11. What are your expectations and who is the best New Mexico-bred in training these days?
With the kind of money we offer, it brings in the elite in New Mexico racing. Although Peppers Pride retired, there are several that are trying to be as good as she is. It amazes me how strong the New Mexico-bred program is these days. They have star power.
Joel Marr, the trainer of Peppers Pride, has another horse. Leftys Who went on a streak there where he won his first five races. He’s now won eight of 11 with three seconds —he has that type of appeal.
Trainer Todd Fincher won four six-figure races on New Mexico Cup day at Zia Park (Nov. 8). He’s bringing all four of those to Sunland. Ironically the one that might be the best one is the one Peppers Pride defeated in her finale, Negotiablafections, and she’s running opening weekend. We have some 30 races that are worth six figures.
What kind of chance did you think Mine That Bird had in the Kentucky Derby?
I was just hoping he could split the field; maybe beat a chunk of the field. He looked like a horse, at least around here, that was difficult to rate. The horse wanted to be involved early. He struck me as a gutsy horse. He almost won the Borderland Derby, but then he ran fourth in our Derby and at the time we didn’t know what the impact would be. Mythical Power ran well; and then Advice ran well, so quickly we began to think that running fourth in the (Sunland) Derby was a pretty good effort, but it was hard to say.
What was the impact on Sunland Park and New Mexico after he won?
It was a bolt of lightning. It was a huge explosion of excitement. It was a once in a lifetime event.
Now that the March 28 Sunland Derby is graded for 2010, what are your expectations for the field this year?
At $800,000, it ranks pretty highly in value now, so now instead of getting the fourth or fifth seed out of a major outfit, a la an Asmussen or Bob Baffert, we might get a two or three or one or two. It’ll be a huge jump up. Our general manager saw it as moving from a mid-majors conference to the BCS.
We’d like to thank Doug O’Neill, Baffert, and the WinStar people. They helped us get here by lending credibility to the race.
The landscape of racing is changing. If you have that kind of money to offer and you’re graded, you’re going to get the best. Now we have that leverage where we can say the winner of the Sunland Derby gets a spot in the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby.
Sunland Park is just outside El Paso. If you could do one thing in El Paso, other than go to Sunland Park, what would you do?
I’d go see the UTEP (University of Texas at El Paso) Miners basketball team. The Miners basketball team, although they haven’t been a power in recent years, won the national title in ’66 and the legend of Don Haskins still permeates around the city. And now, they’re getting good again.
One of the great things about the whole area is the people, no matter what part of El Paso you’re in. It’s a melding of cultures: We’re the “Path to the North,” “El Paso del Norde.” And you’ll get the greatest Mexican food in the world here.