Zia Park Still Unable to Reopen
HOBBS, NM—AUGUST 11, 2020—Due to the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the fall meet at Zia Park, scheduled to run 54 days beginning September 21 and running through December 22, is uncertain.
New Mexico Horsemen’s Association Executive Director Richard Erhard met via telecom with Chris McErlean, Vice President of racing at Penn National, and Bill Belcher, the general manager of Zia Park, on August 6 to discuss the status of the upcoming meet.
During the meeting, the main points established included that Penn National will continue to wait for confirmation from the New Mexico Governor’s office stating that racetrack casinos will be allowed to open prior to making a final decision to hold a race meet.
Second, after that confirmation is made, it will take Zia Park five weeks of preparation to open, with racing to begin on the sixth week.
Given this timeline, Penn National does not see it as being advantageous for anyone to open Zia Park for a 2020 meet if confirmation to open casinos does not come until September 30 or later.
NMHA hosted an open Zoom video conference on August 10, with more than 50 people in virtual attendance. This included horsemen and representatives from NMHA and other New Mexico racetracks.
“It was a very productive meeting, as far as I’m concerned,” Erhard said. “We’re all in this together, and that’s why I reached out to all stakeholders.”
Despite their casinos being closed, both Ruidoso Downs and The Downs at Albuquerque have opened their race meets under strict health guidelines.
Ruidoso opened its meet on May 22 and will run through Labor Day. It offers live viewing and wagering of the races, as well as a local drive-through betting service.
The Downs at Albuquerque opened its delayed meet on August 8, and will run through September 20. It is also scheduled to host the Bank of America Challenge Championships on October 24.
New Mexico House of Representatives member Candy Spence Ezzell is a horseman with a close understanding of racing in the state.
“First off, I have to applaud Ruidoso Downs, its owners and management, for going up and promoting our industry, giving the horses the opportunity to race,” she said. “They have gone above and beyond to accommodate the horsemen.”
As far as Zia Park goes, she said, there are contracts in place and if they refused to run dates, they could potentially be violating state statutes.
Horse racing is an important industry in New Mexico, she says, as it is the third largest in the state. Racing creates significant amounts of jobs within the industry itself, as well as being a high tourism driver when people attend the races, funding the hospitality, food and travel industries.
“The impact of COVID-19 on racing in New Mexico has just been disastrous, and I think everybody is realizing we’re in this together and we need to work on this together,” Erhard said. “If we stay in silos and don’t work with each other, I don’t have much hope. If we work together and everyone’s up front and put everything on the table, I think we can come up with a solution.”
The shut down has been extremely difficult for the racetracks, as well as horsemen, with a loss of revenue from the casinos and from customers. If Zia and Sunland casinos were to stay shuttered, it would also directly affect Ruidoso, as they have a lease agreement in place for slot machines that result in Ruidoso getting purse and track revenue generation through the lease agreements.
Jeff True, general manager at Ruidoso Downs and a member of the AQHA Racing Council, says that while racetracks are feeling it, the impact on horsemen is a big concern.
“We’re going to finish our meet Labor Day weekend, as bad as it was revenue wise, and kind of shut down for the winter. Zia Park not opening means the horses that would normally go from here to Zia are not going to be able to do that; they’re not going to have a place to go. So the impact on Ruidoso is less than it is on the horsemen.”
There are discussions ongoing about potential solutions, including moving race dates. True said that while Ruidoso is open to discussion, there is a great deal of work, including finding funding, that would need to be done to make that happen.
“We need everyone’s input, we need everyone’s brain power, and we need to find some solutions,” Erhard said. “We don’t have a lot of time to fool around.
“Bottom line is, we want to race,” he added. “Horsemen need to race. We need a place to continue training. We need a place to go with our stock. This can’t just stop.”