By Associated Press
The New Mexico Racing Commission on Wednesday picked Ruidoso Downs owner R.D. Hubbard and his partners to build and operate a new horse race track and casino at Hobbs that will be called Zia Park."There's going to be a diamond in the desert created by this process," said Commission Chairman Jack Cole, borrowing the comment made recently by fellow Commissioner Arnold Rael to describe what will be the state's fifth track.Hubbard and his three partners, along with the state, the horse racing industry and folks in Lea County and Hobbs are betting that Cole's prediction becomes reality.They believe that thousands of West Texans will join area residents in betting the ponies and spinning the reels on the 600 slot machines in the track's casino.The casino could be up and running within a year and the owners expect the track to be finished in time for a 53-day live race meet starting in October or November of 2005."These are exciting times," Cole said moments before the commission voted to award the license to the Zia Partners headed by Hubbard, the owner of the Ruidoso Downs track.The Zia group plans to spend about $43 million to build the track and casino. It's a gamble because no one can say with any certainty how popular the track and casino will be. Also, the Hobbs venture could face some major competition if casino-gaming were to become legal in Texas.The commission conducted two days of hearings last week to give the four applicants a chance to present their proposals for the track and casino.The bidders: Hubbard, bidding under Zia Park Partners; Santa Fe art dealer Gerald Peters, under a partnership known as Hobbs Downs; Ken Newton, former owner of The Downs at Santa Fe, whose SaddleBrook Park partnership included the owners of the Riviera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nev.; and Nevada businessman Shawn Scott, who proposed a track complex under the name Lea Downs.One of Hubbard's partners, Paul Blanchard, and Peters are close friends of Gov. Bill Richardson and both contributed thousands of dollars to Richardson's political campaign. Richardson had said the commission's actions would not be influenced by personal or political ties and he reiterated that Wednesday."Personal, political and financial relationships were not a factor in the decision making process," Richardson said in a statement issued by his office. "The Racing Commission, not my office or me, made the final decision."During his campaign, Richardson promised residents of Hobbs and Lea County he would support their efforts to get a new track."This action means millions of dollars in new economic activity for eastern New Mexico and hundreds of new jobs for the people of Lea County," Richardson said Wednesday.The license was granted conditionally, which means the Zia partners must be able to obtain a gaming license from the state Gaming Control Board and must fulfill the promises they made in the winning proposal as well as meet any other requirements imposed by the Racing Commission."The big winners are the citizens of New Mexico, the city of Hobbs and Lea County, and of course, the New Mexico horsemen," Cole said.Hubbard said Wednesday there are a lot of benefits to having Ruidoso Downs and the new track under the same ownership and management."It would have been a disaster to have a third party running against us," he said. "Now we can work on racing days and cross promotions."Cole commended the work of the four applicants."What a mountain of work, what a mountain of money and effort went into this," Cole said. "All of the applications had a lot of merit."Racing Commissioner Ken Corazza said before voting for Hubbard's group that the commission had received 51 letters of recommendation for Hubbard "from the elite of thoroughbred racing."Three of the four Hobbs applicants were present, with only Scott missing.The commission voted 3-1 to award the license to the Zia partners, with Commissioners David "Hossie" Sanchez, Rael and Corazza voting for it and Commissioner Al Lucero voting against it. Cole did not vote because the chairman votes only in case of a tie.Peters left the meeting moments after the decision was announced and declined to comment.Newton's only comment was that he was disappointed.Earlier this year, the commission expressed concern about possible lawsuits from the unsuccessful applicants.Cole said Wednesday the commission was "comfortable" with its decision, adding, "We're thoroughly at ease that the process was done correctly."