Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino
Tuesday, January 2, 2024
$350,000 Championship at Sunland Park (Gr. I) lures the world’s best Quarter Horses on Sunday
A half dozen of the world’s best older Quarter Horses converge on Sunday in the 22nd running of the Grade 1 $350,000 Championship at Sunland Park (Gr. I).
Kj Desparado, quarter horse racing’s all-time leading money earner with over $3 million, is tabbed as the 2-to-1 morning line favorite in the 440-yard event. He drew the inside post under jockey Adrian Ramos and trainer Wes Giles.
Empressum, the second choice on the morning line for the Championship and a 22-time winner from 31 career starts, will break from post three under Rodrigo Vallejo for trainer M. Heath Taylor.
Flash Bak, most recently a winner in the $750,000 Champion of Champion Stakes at Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress, Calif., and also representing the barn of Taylor, is the third choice on the morning line and will be ridden once again by Francisco Calderon. Flash Bak and Empressum are the last two winners of the Champion of Champions.
In total, the six horses entering the starting gate for Sunday’s Championship at Sunland Park have a combined mark of 64 wins and earnings of more than $7.6 million.
Owned by John Lee, Kathy Lee and Ruben Mares, Kj Desparado recently became the richest quarter horse of all time last summer, and the son of Apollitical Jess scored a 1 1/4 length victory in the Refrigerator Stakes last fall at Lone Star Park last time out. Bred in Arizona, the 5-year-old son of Kj Desperado won three times from four starts in 2023, including the $250,000 All American Gold Cup at Ruidoso Downs last summer.
As a 2-year-old, Kj Desparado won the All American Futurity, and as a 3-year-old, he won a pair of Grade 1 stakes races including the Ruidoso Derby and the Texas Classic Derby. He is a 15-time winner from 22 starts, but he has yet to win a race at Sunland Park, where last year, he finished second in the Championship at Sunland Park as the post time favorite behind Danjer.
Flash Bak and Empressum last met in the Champion of Champions at Los Alamitos on Dec. 9, 2023, with Flash Bak earning a mild upset victory. Owned by Valeriano Racing Stables LLC, Flash Bak has won 11 times from 29 career starts and also will be seeking his first win over the Sunland Park course. Flash Bak narrowly defeated KJ Desperado in the Downs at Albuquerque Fall Championship.
Empressum, owned by Jeff Jones and Steve Holt, came up three-quarters of a length short of earning back-to-back victories in the Champion of Champions last month when upset by behind Flash Bak. As a 3-year-old in 2021, he won both the Grade 1 Rainbow Derby and Ruidoso Derby as well as the Grade 1 Texas Classic Derby.
The Grade 1 Championship at Sunland Park, scheduled as the seventh race on the Sunday card, has a post time of 3:04 p.m.
Strong fields for both $65,000 KLAQ and New State Racing Commission Handicaps on opening day Friday
On Friday, the 2024 live horse racing season at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino opens at 12:25 p.m. with a nine-race card and a pair of thoroughbred stakes races later in the day.
Friday’s stakes doubleheader, beginning with the $100,000 New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap, followed by the $65,000 KLAQ Handicap, will be contested by both state-bred and open thoroughbreds.
Friday’s $100,000 New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap features a field of seven older fillies and mares bred in New Mexico, with Bella Dona and Corrina Corrina expected to vie for not only favoritism at the betting windows, but also for the lion’s share of the purse.
Trained by Gary Cross for owner Derrick Jenkins, Corrina Corrina is a winner in each of her last five starts. She has won 11 times in her 23-race career with earnings of more than $753,000. Her most recent start was on Nov. 27 when she crossed the wire more than a length ahead of her rivals in the $200,000 Peppers Pride New Mexico Cup Fillies and Mares Classic at Zia Park. The 5-year-old daughter of Mr. Trieste has finished either first or second in six starts at Zia Park and has been installed as the 9-to-5 post time favorite under jockey Tracy Hebert, breaking from the outside post. Corrina Corrina is the undisputed leading Thoroughbred New Mexico-bred mare.
Drawn in post four is Bella Dona, owned by Robert and Del Rae Driggers as well as Ben Lee Ivey and trained by Simon Buechler. A 13-time winner from 17 career starts, the 5-year-old daughter of Attila’s Storm comes off a romping win on Monday, Nov. 27 when she won the New Mexico Classic Cup Distaff Sprint by 4½ lengths under jockey Luis Fuentes.
At a distance of five and a half furlongs, the New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap will go as the seventh race on the card with a scheduled post time of 3:04 p.m.
Friday’s co-featured $65,000 KLAQ Handicap will go as the eighth race on the card, featuring a deep field of the region’s top older sprinters racing five furlongs.
Prayer Of Jabez, making his Sunland Park debut for owner Anthony DeMarco and trainer Edward Kereluk, has been installed as the tepid 4-to-1 morning line favorite. In his most recent start, the 5-year-old California-bred son of Stanford was a no-threat second in the $100,000 Zia Sprint Championship on Tuesday, Nov. 28 at Zia Park.
Prayer of Jabez has won five times from 25 career starts, primarily at Turf Paradise in Phoenix and Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash. He will be looking for his first career stakes win and will break from post position five under jockey Luis Valenzuela in the 11-horse sprint.
Minister Of Soul, who won the KLAQ Handicap last year, is back to defend his title. The 10-year-old California-bred has won 18 times from 64 career starts with earnings of more than $580,000. Owned and trained by Esteban Valdez, Minister of Soul will break from post 10 and will be ridden by Fuentes. The KLAQ Handicap has a scheduled post time of 3:32 p.m.
Post time each day is 12:25 p.m. Sunland Park moves to a Thursday through Sunday schedule starting Thursday, January 11.