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New Mexico racinos, owners gave $60K to governor’s campaign

January 4, 2019

The state’s five horse-racing tracks oppose another track in New Mexico, saying the increased competition for racehorses and wagering dollars would threaten the industry.

The New Mexico Racing Commission rejected those arguments last month, voting to move forward with licensing of a new track.

But the existing tracks will get another shot to make their case against another license, this time to the new administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who took office Tuesday and controls the Racing Commission through appointment of its members.

The tracks and their owners, longtime major players in New Mexico politics, contributed at least $60,000 to Lujan Grisham’s campaign, according to the state’s database of political donations. They gave far less to Lujan Grisham’s general election opponent, former Congressman Steve Pearce.

Asked whether Lujan Grisham supported the issuance of a new track license, a spokesman said Wednesday the governor wants to evaluate the situation before setting a course.

Lujan Grisham is in a political tight spot because whatever decision she makes is likely to anger some of her supporters. Individuals and businesses tied to two groups that want the new track license also were major donors to her campaign.

In a letter to the Racing Commission in November, the state’s five tracks — in Sunland Park, Ruidoso Downs, Albuquerque, Farmington and Hobbs — outlined their objections to a new track and the slot machine casino that would go with it.

The letter said fewer racehorses are being bred in New Mexico and that a new track would siphon off some of the tracks’ slot machine revenues, which help fund race purses.

“It is our opinion that the issuance of a sixth racing license would be contrary to the Commission’s stated mission and would result in economic harm, instability, and uncertainty for all segments of the state’s horse racing industry,” the letter said.

A feasibility study conducted for the Racing Commission found a new track and casino could generate more than $68 million a year in gaming revenues but also could cannibalize more than $2 million in business from existing tracks.

Because more gaming revenues equal more money for race purses, the increase in purses caused by the new track will attract more out-of-state racehorses to New Mexico, the study said.

After meeting in secret and without public debate, the Racing Commission on Dec. 21 voted 3-1 in favor of issuing a new license but postponed a decision on who will get it. It is waiting for resolution of a court petition that seeks to force the commission to conduct a second feasibility study on a new track and casino.

Lujan Grisham received campaign contributions from the tracks in Sunland Park, Farmington and Ruidoso, as well as from the owners of those tracks and the track in Albuquerque.

Paul Blanchard, an owner of the Albuquerque Downs Racetrack & Casino, donated $10,500, the state’s contribution database shows. Companies affiliated with two other owners of the track, Bill Windham and John Turner, gave a total of at least $25,000.

Windham and Turner also are owners of SunRay Park & Casino in Farmington. That track gave $5,500 to Lujan Grisham, according to the contribution database.

All American Ruidoso Downs, the company that owns Ruidoso Downs Race Track & Casino, donated $2,000 to the governor, the database shows. Two principals in the company gave a total of $6,500. The wife of a third principal contributed $5,000.

Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino donated $5,500 to Lujan Grisham, according to the database.

Pending before the Racing Commission are competing proposals by three groups to build a track and casino in the Clovis area. There also is one proposal for Tucumcari and one for Lordsburg.

Individuals and businesses tied to one of the Clovis groups donated a total of at least $25,500 to Lujan Grisham’s campaign, according to the contribution database. Another Clovis group contributed at least $13,000.

Under an agreement with New Mexico’s American Indian gaming tribes, the state can license one more track and casino. In exchange for limiting off-reservation gambling, the state receives a share of the tribes’ slot machine winnings.

The Racing Commission has had the legal authority to issue the sixth license since 2013, but the administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez didn’t solicit applications until last spring. Three of the groups seeking the license had deep political ties to Martinez.

The five members of the Racing Commission appointed by Martinez remain in place, but Lujan Grisham could replace any or all of them at any time.

The commission is scheduled to meet Jan. 17, and it could take up the license issue again at that meeting.

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