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Ruidoso Downs Racing Gets Out Of Gates Early

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Ruidoso Downs Race Track and Casino draws 200,000 people annually. (Submitted Photo)
Jeff True, president and general manager of Ruidoso Downs Race Track and Casino. (Submitted Photo)

General manager talks about plans for 2019 season

That the horse racing season at Ruidoso Downs is starting two weeks earlier than in previous years is an indication both of the competitiveness of the New Mexico industry and the focus the owners and management of the Ruidoso Downs Race Track and Casino have on growth.

Jeff True, president and general manager for Ruidoso Downs Race Track and Casino, who joined in December 2017 after a new ownership group took over, said he expects continued growth for 2019 — at least a few percentage points of increases in several categories of the enterprise, including horse participation, race betting and casino activity.

That would build on 1,700 horses, more than $80 million in slot-machine “coin-in” and $23 million in pari-mutuel betting in 2018, he said.

The venue, which attracts more than 200,000 people each year, is known for its “triple crown” of quarter-horse races, the Ruidoso Futurity ($750,000 estimated purse this year), the Rainbow Futurity ($1 million) and the All-American Futurity ($3 million).

Yet the Ruidoso Downs operation is more than just racing. It functions as a destination in itself, with the Billy the Kid Casino, the Turf Club restaurant, a sports bar and diner, and a summer entertainment schedule that includes major concerts in June.

Training began this week, with the first race, the Ruidoso Maiden Stakes Trials, May 10. In previous years, the races began on Memorial Day weekend.

“As you know, Ruidoso Downs is a resort community, destination spot,” he said. “And we do business during the summer season, and we do more business when we are racing live. So we are trying to grow that business, expand that business, so expanding our calendar is good for everybody.”

The state industry is intensely competitive, having five licensed racinos — the term for combined horse tracks and casinos. The New Mexico Racing Commission is considering a sixth racino, but that decision remains on hold with applicants vying for locations in Lordsburg, Clovis and Tucumcari, said Izzy Trejo, Racing Commission executive director.

True said already there is a “horse shortage problem” and notes that some tracks, including Ruidoso Downs, compete with overlapping schedules.

For their own efforts to grow, True and Ruidoso Downs Race Track owners have focused on facility improvements to attract owners, trainers and clientele.

For 2018, their efforts included a new roof, upgrading the slot machine management software system and adding 100 new slot machines. For the 2019 season, they have done an extensive renovation of the Turf Club restaurant, put up new highway signs, paved a parking lot and built a new barn. They also have redone the casino floor and added 50 new machines.

“All the machines had to be reset,” said True, which he said will be meaningful to slot-machine players. “They (the machines) operate on random-generated numbers, but the machines’ software itself tries to reach par, so the machines will be very active this summer.”

While important to the village of Ruidoso and the municipality of Ruidoso Downs, the racino also affects Chaves County. Some horse owners, trainers and breeders are from the area, Triple Crown jockey Mike Smith sometimes trained there, two Roswell residents serve on the five-member Racing Commission, and Chaves County hospitality and retail industries benefit.

“It is an impactful economic generator,” True said, “both for tourism, specifically in Ruidoso, and for the agricultural economy.”

There are various reports about the economic impact of the industry on the state, but Trejo said that a 2016 New Mexico Horseman Association report indicated that horse racing generated $549 million to the state’s economy, supported more than 8,000 jobs and contributed $63 million in tax revenue.

True said he and the owners plan steady growth for years to come.

“This owner group is in it for the long-haul,” he said. “They bought the place to solidify quarter-horse racing for the long-term, to grow the business, to make it a stable, sustainable, focal point for quarter-horse racing in America and live racing in New Mexico. … It is about doing all the things we do very well, better than last year, and we’ll take these incremental improvements year after year.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.