ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Live horse racing has resumed in New Mexico, but there are no spectators in the stands and only online and drive-thru wagering is allowed under an ongoing public health order aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
Some state racing regulators expressed concerns during a meeting Thursday that online and curbside betting represents only a fraction of the revenue that usually makes up the handle, and that’s putting pressure on track owners.
For example, live spectators make up at least half of what is usually bet on races at Ruidoso Downs.
Home to one of the world’s richest quarter-horse races, the southern New Mexico track on Memorial Day weekend hosted the first races in the state since the season was curtailed months ago because of public health restrictions.
The season started at Sunland Park earlier this year but soon was put on hold. SunRay Park in northwestern New Mexico never got to run any of its scheduled races.
“It’s really, really hurting financially all these tracks and we need to have their welfare at the top of our minds as well as the horsemen and the breeders,” Commissioner Billy Smith said during the meeting. “It affects everybody. It kind of rolls downhill. They get hurt, we get hurt, the horsemen get hurt, the breeders get hurt. Everybody gets hurt off of something like this.”
Commission Chairwoman Beverly Bourguet said officials at Ruidoso Downs have taken on the challenge of running live races under strict new protocols and the reality of a much smaller handle despite a hit to its own pocketbook. She did not specify how much it was costing and the track did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
The commission on Thursday approved an agreement between the state’s five tracks, the New Mexico Horsemen’s Association and the New Mexico Breeders Association to redistribute more than $3.2 million in purse taxes from Sunland and SunRay to accounts at Ruidoso Downs and Albuquerque Downs.
The taxes would typically be allocated to the horsemen and breeders for purses and awards at the respective tracks.
As part of the agreement, Ruidoso and Albuquerque will add races to their calendars.
More races are scheduled at Ruidoso this weekend. The track has put in place protocols that include daily temperature and health screenings. Everyone at the track also must wear a face covering.
Racing Commission Executive Director Izzy Trejo said it was with short notice that staff came together to gear up for the resumption of racing. He and others said they’re hopeful spectators will be allowed in the stands soon.
“We all know that it’s inevitable that we get that live handle and that we get these casinos up and running soon so we’ll just wait for that time to come. We’re anxious for that time to come,” he said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has targeted June 1 for the easing of more restrictions on businesses as state health officials have said coronavirus infections and deaths remain below peak levels. However, the opening of casinos and tracks is not expected until a later phase, state officials have said.
At Ruidoso, Trejo said staff were embarking Thursday on the second round of out-of-competition drug testing of horses. He said testing will continue but might be limited later on this year as funding for the effort is expected to shrink due to depressed revenues and limited handles.
“We’re certainly going to pick our spots wisely in where we think we’ll get some suspect horses tested,” he said.