Familiar Problem at Ruidoso Downs : Gambling: Like at Hollywood Park, horsemen are wary of on-track video gaming, but management says it is the key to survival.

From Associated Press

Scott Wells got his first look at New Mexico on one of those days when some of the real estate is headed for the Texas border.

It was spring of 1960, and the 10-year-old from Pawhuska, Okla., and his father had arrived at a race track where a good trainer and a fast quarterhorse could win a fortune in seconds.

"I'll never forget my first drive into this place," says Wells. "The wind was blowing and the dust was flying.

"I was so excited because it was so much grander than anything I had seen up to that time. I knew it was a special place."

What has always made Ruidoso Downs special is the All American Futurity, the richest event in quarterhorse racing. It began as a 400-yard sprint in 1959 with a purse of $129,000 and has grown to where the winner earns $1 million.

Five years after their first trip to Ruidoso, Wells and his father Ted Wells Jr. shared an All American victory. The elder Wells was the trainer of Savannah Jr., winner of the 1965 futurity.

Wells' affection for the little New Mexico track has never wavered--not during his college days at Texas Christian, not during the years he worked with some of the nation's best trainers from Kentucky to California and not now as the track's new general manager.

"I've raced from France to San Francisco and every place in between," says Wells, former assistant general manager at Hollywood Park who was named general manager at Ruidoso Downs last month. "I still feel that this place has an excitement, a beauty about it and a closeness to the sport you don't find anywhere else."

Ruidoso Downs is still the place to race quarterhorses, but unlike three decades ago, it is not the only game in town.

Video gaming machines by the hundreds operate daily on a nearly 24-hour basis on the neighboring Mescalero Apache Indian reservation. And like the other New Mexico racetracks, Ruidoso Downs is feeling the pinch from losing to slot machines the dollars that used to end up at pari-mutuel windows.

The arrival of pari-mutuel wagering at tracks in Texas and Oklahoma also has cut into Ruidoso's business, but horsemen in New Mexico are convinced most of the danger is much closer.

"The competition from the Texas tracks doesn't worry me nearly as much as what's happening right down the street," says Wells. "That's the real threat."

Through the first 2 1/2 months of racing this summer, Ruidoso Downs' handle was down more than 8% from the same period a year ago.

Although the state considers video gambling illegal, tribes in New Mexico operate casino-like gaming under the auspices of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act approved by Congress in 1988.

A constitutional amendment on the November general election ballot would legalize a state lottery and wagering on video machine games of chance.

It would be up to the legislature to decide where the gaming machines would go.

If the amendment is approved by the voters, the horse racing industry is expected to lobby for legislation that would allow tracks to open up video-gaming rooms.

"There has never been a racetrack survive anywhere that's had to operate in competition with nearby casinos, unless they're (tracks) allowed to have some kind of participation," Wells says.

Video-gaming machines at racetracks is not a new idea.

They are used in Louisiana to help the struggling horse racing industry there. Under a new law, 0.5% of the tax on video draw poker machines will go into a fund to increase purse money for horse races. The fund is expected to generate $2.5 million a year.

"There was a great deal of reluctance among the purists about accepting video gaming machines at Louisiana Downs, but it was a matter of survival," Wells says.

"At first the horsemen resisted, but what has happened in the last three years is they have kept racing alive at Louisiana Downs and The Fairgrounds (in New Orleans)."

New Mexico political leaders say that until the voters decide on the constitutional amendment, it's premature to speculate how the legislature will deal with video gaming machines. But at least one powerful lawmaker says he would support putting the machines at tracks.

"I think the race tracks will get some strong consideration to get the machines," says state Sen. Manny Aragon, the Senate's president pro tem.

Aragon and House Speaker Ray Sanchez agree horse racing in New Mexico needs help, but Sanchez points out approval of video gaming statewide will create intense lobbying by other groups.

Wells says he left Hollywood Park, one of the nation's top tracks, because he's convinced Ruidoso still has the potential he saw 34 years ago.

"I like a challenge I think I can win," he says. "We've got to remind people that they have a very historic and interesting place here, that the horse racing industry in New Mexico is still viable and capable of growth and new vitality. But first we've got to get back on a level playing field."

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