Uncle D and jockey Cody Smith come in first during the quarter horse futurity in the Rainbow Futurity Sunday, July 21, at Ruidoso Downs in Ruidoso. El Paso Times
New Mexico is about to resume live horse racing after a two-month halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ruidoso Downs Race Track & Casino has the green light to begin its live racing card on Friday, with strict coronavirus safety protocols.
A public health order issued March 16 by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham closed casinos and limited mass gatherings. The public is barred from watching the races in person.
Horses, trainers and stable-area workers began arriving in Ruidoso on May 1. They were greeted by health screenings and an appointment-only requirement for opening their stables and exercise training on the track.
Friday’s opening will be a big moment for the horse racing industry in New Mexico and Texas.
New Mexico horse owners and trainers were hit hard financially when Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino suddenly went dark. Racing is a $500 million industry in New Mexico and is the state’s third-largest economic driver.
The El Paso-area track ended live racing on March 15, a move that led to the cancellation of the rest of the meet, including the $700,000 Sunland Derby, a Kentucky Derby qualification race.
Soon after that, SunRay Park in Farmington had its scheduled meet in April and May called off.
Earlier this month, the Ruidoso racetrack got a feel for what it’s going to be like for the time being when it had quarter horse training races May 6-7.
Quarter horse rider Ricky Ramirez took part in the training races and also has been riding at Remington Park in Oklahoma City, where live racing was allowed.
“At Remington, we took a lot of the similar precautions as we will be doing in Ruidoso and there were not any positive cases of the virus,” Ramirez said. “At Remington, everybody was really cautious and safe. We took it seriously.
“In the jockey’s room, they kept it sanitized all the time, cleaned the showers and even cleaned the door we went in and out of during the days we were racing. Ruidoso stepped up and we’re grateful for allowing us to race and continue with our livelihood. Precaution and safety are important and everyone will take it seriously.”
Fellow jockey Alonso Rivera said he’s ready for the start of the meet and will follow the guidelines set by the track.
“We’ll have some extra space between us in the jockey’s room and we’ll be extra safe when we are at the track,” Rivera said. “We know we have to do what’s best and we have to be safe. This is what we do for a living and we don’t want another stoppage.”
Until further notice, only New Mexico Racing Commission licensed training staff, jockeys, track officials and media will be allowed at Ruidoso Downs.
Ruidoso Downs has developed an operational protocol for barn-area occupants and will enforce those efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by requiring daily temperature and health screenings. Everyone also will be required to wear a face covering.
If a person working in a stable area tests positive for the virus, then everyone in that barn will be quarantined for 14 days. The track is alerted if a worker tests positive.
Lincoln County, where Ruidoso Downs is located, has only three recorded cases of COVID-19.
Early on, the village of Ruidoso and the city of Ruidoso Downs urged tourists to refrain from visiting. Their leaders are maintaining that position even as the track draws people from far-flung areas of the U.S. more heavily impacted by the pandemic.
“Our first priority is providing a safe environment for horsemen, horses, guests and employees, and that will require everyone’s cooperation,” said Jeff True, Ruidoso Downs president and general manager. “As the state of New Mexico moves into Phase 2 and beyond, we are hopeful that we will be able to invite guests in a limited way. We expect to update our public attendance plans in early June.”
Horse racing has continued in some pockets of the United States.
Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Florida stayed open consistently in March, April and so far through May.
Churchill Downs in Kentucky just reopened, as did Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate in California. The next scheduled meets in New Mexico are Albuquerque in July and Zia Park in Hobbs in the fall.
“It’s been tough on everyone not to have racing and we’re just glad it’s back,” said prominent quarter horse trainer Wes Giles. “Being off has taken a toll on people, but we’re ready for this weekend of racing.
“We know we have to be as safe as possible and we’ll do everything we can to make sure that happens. If we can show we are successful here in Ruidoso, that will help the other meets in the state happen.”
New Mexico Racing Commission Executive Director Izzy Trejo said his workers at the track, including stewards, will also adhere to certain protocols, such as no handshakes, no hugging and maintaining social distancing at regulatory meetings or hearings.
“We’ve been given a gift by being allowed to race, and everyone will have to do their part,” Trejo said. “We’re glad the trainers, the jockeys, the owners will have the chance to be a part of racing again.”
Opening weekend will have racing Friday through Monday and the season runs through Labor Day, which is Sept. 7.
Ruidoso Downs is home to the Quarter Horse Triple Crown for both 2-year-old and 3-year-old quarter horse races. The meet ends with the 62nd running of the All American Futurity on Labor Day.
“We know what we are facing and we know changes had to be made for us to race,” trainer Sergio Ibarra said. “It’s the challenge in front of us now, but we’ll make the best of it, and I’m appreciative that we have this chance to race.”