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Downs wants to hold nighttime races

Construction workers lay forms Wednesday in the parking lot of the Downs at Albuquerque’s $20 million casino being built at Expo New Mexico near Central and Louisiana NE.  (adolphe pierre-louis/journal)
Construction workers lay forms Wednesday in the parking lot of the Downs at Albuquerque’s $20 million casino being built at Expo New Mexico near Central and Louisiana NE. (adolphe pierre-louis/journal)
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The Downs at Albuquerque hopes to hold nighttime horseracing, possibly as soon as August.

Racino general manager Darren White said Wednesday no final decision on holding nighttime races has been made, but the installation of lights, which the Downs purchased years ago, has gone out to bid.

“The plan, obviously, is to put the lights up and do night racing,” White said. “It’s part of the overall plan that coincides with the new casino and renovation of the grandstand.”

The idea of night racing, which surfaced at a New Mexico Racing Commission meeting last month, has taken neighborhoods adjacent to the state-owned Expo New Mexico fairgrounds by surprise. And many are not happy.

Nancy Bearce, president of the District 6 Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, which represents neighborhoods surrounding the fairgrounds, said no one in the association had heard of the plan before Wednesday’s inquiry by the Journal.

“The Downs at Albuquerque, while a state-contracted private business, continues to exclude property owners abutting their operations, yet encroach on the surrounding area’s quality of life with animal waste smells, traffic, noise and crime,” Bearce said in a statement.

She said the residents and businesses around the fairgrounds have a vested interest in what goes on there, and should be involved in each step of the decision-making process instead of being ignored.

White said that if a decision to light the track and hold nighttime races is ultimately made, Downs officials will meet with neighborhood representatives to discuss potential impacts.

Racing Commission Chairman Rob Doughty III said that, to conduct nighttime races, the Downs would have to request a change in its racing license application, which would then come before the board for consideration.

That process would also require a public hearing at which interested parties could express their support or objections to lighting the track and running nighttime races.

White, who has been overseeing construction of the new $20 million, 65,000-square-foot casino near Central and Louisiana NE, said nighttime racing could bring the racino new customers.

“Everybody knows horse racing is declining substantially, not just in New Mexico, but across the country,” White said. “We think this will bring in new customers who are looking for a different entertainment option. Maybe they’ve never been to a horse race, but if they hear we’re having night racing, maybe they’ll come. We could be opening up to a whole new clientele.”

White said the Downs purchased lights for the project years ago and that the racino is seeking bids for their installation.

“We’ve actually owned the lights for a few years now, and they’ve been in storage,” he said.

Horsemen appear to be in favor of the project, largely because a portion of the millions of dollars generated by the slot machines in the state’s five racinos supplement horse racing purses.

At the Racing Commission’s Jan. 16 regular meeting, Jack McGrail, executive director of the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association, said horsemen favor the nighttime racing plan.

“I think that could be a real revenue producer,” McGrail told the five-member, governor-appointed Racing Commission. “… You could really increase your simulcast handle and maybe your on-track handle as well. … The horsemen are open to that. It’s a little bit of a hardship on horsemen running at night, but they do it in many other places and we’re open to that.”

White, who said the Downs hopes to open its new casino in May or June, said nighttime racing could be held as soon as the racino’s next live-racing season.

The Racing Commission, which is responsible for regulating New Mexico’s pari-mutuel horse racing industry, has already approved the Downs’ 40-day 2013 live race dates.

The races are slated for Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays beginning Aug. 2 and ending Nov. 4. The New Mexico State Fair’s 17-day racing season, which is conducted by and held at the Downs, is set to run between Sept. 6 and Sept. 27.

Like Bearce, District 6 City Councilor Rey Garduño, whose district includes the fairgrounds, had never heard of the night racing plan until Wednesday.

“I’m not surprised that there has been no neighborhood outreach” on the part of the Downs, Garduño said. “Here they go again.”

Garduño, who has long opposed the Downs casino, said nighttime racing will only degrade the neighborhoods surrounding it and prey on nearby residents who will become “victims of gambling.”

He wondered whether the bright lights, nighttime traffic, loudspeakers and dust would bother neighbors – which include a nearby senior living facility.

“As a city councilor, I don’t have jurisdiction over the fairgrounds, but I do have constituents who come to me and complain about these issues,” Garduño said. “So I feel compelled to say this is not the way to run a public institution that affects the public so directly.”

Calling nighttime racing “an awful idea,” he urged Downs officials to start a dialogue with the neighborhoods and nearby businesses.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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