Sunland Park Racetrack has been a stop on the road to the Kentucky Derby for horses looking to earn qualifying points for a much-coveted chance at running in the prestigious race. Not this year.
Officials confirmed Monday there will be no Sunland Derby or Sunland Park Oaks as the New Mexico track recovers from an equine herpes outbreak that infected dozens of horses and placed the track along the Texas-New Mexico border on lockdown.
No horses have been allowed on or off the property since Jan. 21. Track officials say they hope that will change Wednesday when New Mexico livestock officials are expected to lift the quarantine.
No new cases of the fast-spreading virus have been reported in more than a week, but there’s reluctance from some horse owners to ship their animals to New Mexico for fear of another positive case derailing the track’s recovery and prompting another quarantine.
Some tracks have banned the import of horses that have been in New Mexico due to virus concerns.
“It’s understandable,” Sunland Park spokeswoman Molly Jo Rosen said of the reluctance. “The good news is that there is a ton of interest in running here and we expect to see solid fields and great racing through the end of the meet.”
Rosen pointed to barns in Southern California and on the East Coast that are interested in shipping horses to Sunland when the quarantine is lifted.
The Sunland Derby and Sunland Park Oaks, scheduled for March 20, are being renamed. The purse for what would have been the Derby has been adjusted and no points are at stake.
In making the decision, track officials said they wanted to ensure the integrity of the Derby and Oaks’ graded status. The quality of the horses allowed to compete at Churchill Downs, which hosts the Kentucky Derby, was another factor.
Sunland Park general manager Rick Baugh said he understands how much the Sunland Derby and the Oaks mean to the community.
Under the rules, 20 horses have a chance to run in the Kentucky Derby. Contenders must compete in a series of 35 designated races at various tracks, where the top finishers are awarded points. Horses with the most points earn a spot in the starting gate.
No Derby or Oaks at Sunland Park means no points can be earned by those who were planning to race at the track, according to officials at Churchill Downs.
A dozen more points races are scheduled before the May 7 derby.
Sunland Park has been conducting live racing since New Mexico livestock officials cleared the way in late February, more than a month after the first case of the EHV-1 virus was confirmed. The race cards have been filled by horses already stabled at the track.
The EHV-1 virus has been documented so far this year on farms and at private stables from California to Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York and Florida. But the outbreak at Sunland Park sparked concern because there were between 2,500 and 3,000 horses boarded at the track and nearby barns.
In all, more than 70 horses in New Mexico were infected and two cases were documented in neighboring El Paso County, Texas. Several horses were euthanized.
The virus is highly contagious to horses but poses no threat to humans. Symptoms include a fever, nasal discharge and a wobbly gait. In severe cases, it can cause neurological problems and result in death.