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The Downs Seeks Move To Moriarty: Racino Plans $65M Complex
[May 12, 2007]

The Downs Seeks Move To Moriarty: Racino Plans $65M Complex

(Albuquerque Journal (NM) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) May 12--The Downs at Albuquerque hopes to abandon its location at the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque and build a new, $65 million horse track, casino, hotel and truck stop in Moriarty.

Downs president Paul Blanchard on Friday filed an application with the State Racing Commission seeking 2009 racing dates at a new location: 500 acres near the intersection of I-40 and N.M. 41 in Moriarty.

"We need more room," said Blanchard, who more than a year ago began scouting sites in that area. "We want to get larger, and it's not possible where we are now."

The Downs is a horse racing track that operates on a state lease at the fairgrounds in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights. It also operates a state-licensed slot-machine casino in conjunction with the track.

The facilities at the fairgrounds are cramped and aging. The racino won't accommodate the number of slot machines allowed by law.

Despite that and the open arms of some business leaders in Moriarty, the proposed move of the Downs racino faces regulatory hurdles.

Racing Commission director Julian Luna said the commission could start considering the proposed move at its May 23 meeting.

But Luna warned, "It's a complicated issue. I'd like to get as much legal advice as possible."

Rumors of a possible Downs move have been swirling for months.

Blanchard said he has a purchase option on 500 acres of King Ranch land north of Interstate 40 and east of N.M. 41 in Moriarty.

The property is ideal, he said, because an Interstate exit already exists there and N.M. 41 is a route to Santa Fe.

The racetrack would bring about 400 jobs, ranging from track-related personnel to security guards, wait staff in the restaurant, hotel staff and truck stop personnel.

Blanchard said the proposed racino complex would include a hotel, truck stop, restaurant and entertainment space in addition to the racetrack, grandstands and stables.

'A very good fit'

Steve Anaya, a Moriarty city councilor and Estancia Valley Economic Development Association board member, said Friday that he was excited about the prospect.

Anaya said the city could extend waterlines and sewer service to the parcel, which is already inside Moriarty's city limits.

"We felt this was something that enhanced ... the valley, with the agricultural roots and with (tourism)," Anaya said. "Most of our business is from tourism anyway, so we felt that it was a very good fit for us."

Torrance County commissioner Jim Frost, who represents the northwestern third of the county, said the racetrack will be a boon for the community.

"It's not without its problems," Frost said, "but we'll take it one step at a time."

Moriarty attorney Dennis Wallin, who owns the Buford Steakhouse, said his experience as a business owner in Ruidoso taught him that a racetrack can be beneficial to a community.

"There were some problems (in Ruidoso), but they're outweighed by the economic benefits," he said. "People basically come into the community to spend money, and that's a good thing for the community."

The State Fair Commission in 2004 considered -- but later shelved -- a proposal by Blanchard to build a new, stand-alone casino on the fairgrounds at the busy corner of Central and Louisiana NE.

Potential hurdles

Here are some of the issues facing the latest proposal to move the Downs operation to Moriarty:

Blanchard wants the Racing Commission to allow the Downs -- which is licensed to run horse racing at the fairgrounds -- to renew its existing license for the new location in 2009.

The renewal process is much faster, and far less complicated, than seeking a new license for a new racino.

"I can't ever remember where we've had an actual change of locations in regards to a racetrack," the racing commission's Luna said.

If the Racing Commission were to reject the renewal proposal and require a new track application, Blanchard might have to get in line. There are two applications pending -- one to reopen the Downs at Santa Fe and another to build a new track in Raton -- and the commission has received letters concerning a potential Tucumcari track application.

There are five racinos in New Mexico, located in Albuquerque, Farmington, Sunland Park, Hobbs and Ruidoso.

Under new compacts between the state and New Mexico's casino-operating Indian tribes, the state can license no more than six racinos.

The off-reservation racinos generate significant revenue for the state, which collects 26 percent of the net slot take: In fiscal 2006, the racinos paid nearly $60 million to the state.

Tribal casinos pay a lower revenuesharing rate to the state. In fiscal 2006, they paid more than $49 million.

The Moriarty move would leave the fair without the $2 million in annual rent paid by the Downs. The contract between the Downs and the fair expires in 2010, and Blanchard said he would pay off the lease if he gets the green light to move.

The Downs runs its own race meet at the fairgrounds and contracts to operate races during the State Fair in September.

Fair general manager Fred Peralta said that, if the Downs leaves, it could spell an end to the traditional fair horse races -- and the fair could opt to demolish the aging grandstands where the Downs casino is now located.

"The question is, if you're not going to have racing, then why are you going to have a track?" said Peralta. "But ... we're leaving all our options open."

Copyright (c) 2007, Albuquerque Journal, N.M.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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