A recent trip to New Mexico afforded me an opportunity to briefly visit two racetracks, Ruidoso Downs and Sunland Park.
Nestled in the Sierra Blanca mountains of south-central New Mexico, along US Highway 70 - the aptly named Billy the Kid Scenic Byway, because we all know that Billy the Kid was a great environmentalist when he wasn't killing people - sits Ruidoso Downs. It's a small and charming little track, with an open-air grandstand and pleasant view of its surroundings. Unfortunately, the day of my little stopover was a dark day, so I relied on my imagination: Breathe in that mountain air, enjoy a cold beer, and watch and wager on horses; clearly an afternoon at the racetrack would be nothing but relaxing and enjoyable.
The facility is modest, however at one end of the grandstand there's an ugly addition: The Billy the Kid Casino, where all that lovely slot money is generated.
Well, it used to be generated.
Adjacent to the town of Ruidoso is the Mescalero Apache tribal land and their - you guessed it - casino. A few years ago, under a separate gaming compact with the state, the tribe opened a permanent temporary Travel Center (read: casino) 3 1/2 miles down the road from Ruidoso Downs. Within the first 18 months of its operations, casino gaming at The Billy the Kid Casino dropped 28%.
The racetrack's in trouble; competition from the tribe is driving the racetrack out of business. And now track and casino owner, R.D. Hubbard, is hoping for Lincoln County voters to pass the Business Retention/Gross Receipts Tax in a special election September 21. The community appears divided - the town doesn't want to lose the racetrack but hard-working taxpayers perceive it as a bail out for a failing gambling business. I wouldn't be surprised if the quaint racetrack becomes shuttered in the near future. And Mr. Hubbard will take his racing and gaming licenses and move his business somewhere else, probably closer to Texas.
At this point in my trip, I'm pretty confident that Ruidoso Downs isn't enticing all the good horses from Texas.
As for my quick stop at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino, that also proved to be insightful: When it comes to capitalizing on maximum gambling dollars, it's all about location, location, location. Sunland Park, tucked into a tiny corner of New Mexico, is geographically greater El Paso, Texas, with a population of over 700,000. However, combine that with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the international metropolitan population is a whopping 2.2 million. Interestingly enough, you can go down Sunland Drive (in Texas), grab a lunch-on-the-go at The State Line Bar-B-Que (in Texas), and walk over to Sunland Park (in New Mexico) before you've taken a second bite of your brisket sandwich!
Here's a lovely view of the scenic backside of the track, the photo taken from Texas:
The attractive and well-kept grandstand isn't actually situated in the most picturesque setting, but there isn't any gambling competition and they can draw from a large population. Recently, Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino gave a $12 million grant to develop the local border crossing, because let's face it, there's nothing wrong with Mexicans' money either.
So the racetrack has money. Lots of money. Enough to bolster its purses to $200,000 to $300,000 a day. And Texas horses are pouring over the border - 50 yards over the border - into New Mexico.
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2009 Kentucky Derby Winner and favorite son, Mine That Bird proudly stands in front of Sunland Park Racetrack