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Saturday, March 23, 2013
Spotlight falls on Sunland Park


Go back in time 10 years and most horse racing fans would probably associate Sunland Park with roller coasters, a ferris wheel and all of the other stomach-churning rides you'd find at an amusement park.

Yet on Sunday, the attention of a large segment of the racing world will be focused on Sunland Park, New Mexico, where a couple of horses will secure a pass to run in the Kentucky Derby or Kentucky Oaks.

Funny, isn't it, what a large infusion of purse money from a casino and the ability to produce both a Derby and Oaks winner since 2009 can do for a track's reputation?

Thanks to the new format for nailing down starting spots in the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, Sunday's $800,000 Sunland Derby and $200,000 Sunland Oaks are basically automatic qualifiers for those two Kentucky races. In descending order 50-20-10-5 points will be awarded to the top four finishers in both Sunland Park races, and 50 points will be more than enough to wrap starting spots in the May classics. With some help from another good effort, the runners-up might also sneak into the picture for both Churchill Downs stakes.

Whether this year's races feature another Mine That Bird, the 50-1 winner of the 2009 Kentucky Derby, or Plum Pretty, a much more fathomable 6-1 victory in the 2011 Kentucky Oaks, is the pertinent question.

The Sunland Derby boasts a less than formidable field with only one horse who received points in the most recent ESPN.com Top 10 poll.

Shakin It Up was 21st in the last poll with just two points, and while he won the Grade 2 San Vicente in his last start, he has yet to race beyond seven furlongs. What he does have in his favor is the services of trainer Bob Baffert, which can only help a maturing 3-year-old develop into a Triple Crown prospect.

The race also features a trio of locally based hoses, Dry Summer, Show Some Magic and Stormdriver. Dry Summer is 2-for-2 at Sunland and seems to have an affinity for the course, but a 17-length loss in the Grade 3 Sham at Santa Anita makes him a dubious prospect once he crosses the state line.

The ones with the most upside would probably be a few horses who broke their maiden in their last start. Baffert's Govenor Charlie comes off a strong win in a mile race at Santa Anita and seems the best of that group, but Just Win Baby, Saint Prado and the Todd Pletcher-trained Abraham, who ships in from Florida, also appear to have some talent. Whether all that potential is enough to make any one of that lightly seasoned group a threat six weeks from now at Churchill Downs is a question that may not have a happy answer.

In the Oaks, Pletcher and Baffert have strong hands. Pletcher's Majestic River, who was second at Gulfstream to the highly regarded Emollient, has a little more experience than Baffert's Midnight Lucky. Yet that edge in seasoning amounts to two career starts for Majestic River compared to one for Midnight Lucky.

That lone start for Midnight Lucky, though, was an eye-opener as she took a 6 -furlong sprint at Santa Anita by 6 1/4-lengths in exceptionally quick time. Sunday's two-turn, mile-and-a-sixteenth Oaks should fill in at least some of the blanks about her distance capabilities.

The other threat would be the California-bred Unusual Way, who is 2-for-2 on a dry, dirt track.

Of the two, the Oaks seems more likely to produce a horse capable of being a factor in a Grade 1 classic, and one out of two isn't really bad for a racetrack that no longer has an identity crisis.