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Horse racing: Downs’ state fair meet canceled

With the New Mexico State Fair being called off, the horse races that usually coincide with the annual event are being canceled too.

State regulators during a special meeting Wednesday approved a motion to nix the state fair race meet. They also approved changes to the race dates and stakes schedule for The Downs at Albuquerque.

The changes mean this year’s meet at The Downs will start later, running from Aug. 8 through Sept. 20, when the state fair races would have otherwise been happening.

New Mexico’s horse tracks and their associated casinos have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. After a brief hiatus, races resumed at Ruidoso Downs in May but without spectators and the casinos remain closed under a public health order issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The revenue brought in by the casinos during race meets helps to subsidize racing. Without the slot machines and tables, some track owners have suggested losses per day could reach in to the tens of thousands of dollars.

To help offset some of the expenses, an agreement reached between The Downs and associations that represent horse owners and breeders call for $100 per head start fee for the upcoming races in Albuquerque.

Representatives for the groups told members of the state Racing Commission during the meeting that the fee should be considered as a one-time option given the circumstances brought on by the pandemic. If casinos were to reopen and fans allowed in the stands by the time racing starts in August, the fee would be reconsidered.

Richard Erhard, executive director of the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association, said it’s hard to know what public health orders will be in place in the coming months.

What is certain, he said, is that owners want to race.

“We are – all of us – in a terrible situation right now with regard to COVID-19,” he said. “It is truly a period of uncertainty and things are changing on a daily basis. My hope is that things look completely different in a few weeks and we have a fan base and casinos are open and much of this is behind us. But none of us know that.”

The Racing Commission had previously approved an agreement to redistribute more than $3.2 million in purse taxes due to cancellations at the Sunland Park and SunRay tracks earlier in the season. The commission still has to consider at its upcoming meeting whether to allow The Downs to take on the stakes races that would have been run during the state fair.

Pandemic forces shuffling of New Mexico horse racing meet