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A bittersweet day of big-time horse racing arrives at the Downs

Some of the world’s top quarter horses will go head to head Saturday in Albuquerque – even if local racing fans have to boot up their laptops to watch.

The Downs of Albuquerque will host the 28th annual American Quarter Horse Association’s Bank of America Challenge Championships for the second straight year, an event that brings big purses and outstanding racing talent to New Mexico.

The Challenge Championship card includes five graded stakes races featuring horses that had to qualify by winning at various tracks throughout the year. Don Cook, president of racing at the Downs of Albuquerque, said the field lives up to its billing.

“It’s like the Breeders Cup of quarter horse racing,” Cook said. “The first five races are like the undercard. The last five have some of the best horses in the world.”

As with so many things in 2020, there’s a down side. Because of New Mexico’s coronavirus restrictions, only a handful of people (primarily horse owners) will be able to watch the races in person. Last year’s Challenge Championship drew more than 8,000 fans, Cook said.

“It’s a shame we can’t have fans for an event like this,” Cook said, “but that’s out of our control. It’s still a big honor for New Mexico, for the Downs and for Albuquerque to be able to host these races.”

Post time for the opening race is 4:10 p.m., but the spotlight race is the finale. The Grade 1, $250,000 Championship Challenge is a 440-yard dash for quarter horses 3 years old and up. The likely favorite will be Danjer, winner of the Grade 1, $300,000 Downs of Albuquerque Fall Championship in his most recent start on Sept. 25.

“Danjer is probably the top quarter horse in the world right now,” Cook said.

The winner of Saturday’s last race receives a berth in the Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos in Cypress, California, in December.

Saturday’s other top races are the Adequan Derby Challenge (400 yards for 3-year-olds); the John Deere Juvenile Challenge (350 yards for 2-year-olds); and the AQHA Distaff Challenge (400 yards for fillies and mares).

While some fans may be able to watch from the nearby Turf Club and Jockey Club, which are open for outdoor dining at 25% capacity, most racing enthusiasts will have to watch and/or wager online. The Downs will send video to 179 sites – race sites and websites – Cook said.

Cook conceded that hosting races through the pandemic has placed a financial strain on the Downs of Albuquerque, but he feels an obligation to provide opportunities for owners, trainers, riders and others who make their livings in the industry.

“We’re all doing what we can to keep the business alive,” Cook said.

It remains to be seen what 2021 may look like for horse racing, but the coming year does include some good news for the Downs of Albuquerque.

“We just got awarded the Challenge Championships for ’21,” Cook said. “We are excited about that.”

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