The History of Legalized Gambling in New Mexico - Part I - June 9, 2011

New Mexico had long attracted Texas money...

If you’re a relative newcomer to New Mexico you may assume that Native American casinos have been around for a long time.  They haven’t.   The first casino in northern New Mexico---The Cities of Gold---opened only 16 years ago in Pojoaque.  Today 11 pueblos, the Jicarilla Apache Tribe, the Navajo Nation and the Mescalero Apaches all own casinos throughout much of New Mexico. 

There was legalized gambling in New Mexico long before the Cities of Gold Casino.   Bingo long has been a popular way for churches and non-profit organizations in New Mexico to raise money.  This form of bingo currently is regulated by the New Mexico Gaming Control Board which set limits on prizes, etc.  

Pari-mutuel horseracing as we know it began in New Mexico in 1946 with the opening of La Mesa Park in Raton.   The northeast New Mexico location was perfect for attracting horse lovers and gamblers from the nearby, cowboy states of Texas and Oklahoma, both of whom did not have legalized gambling.   Tracks opened in Sunland Park (next to El Paso/Juarez), in Ruidoso (also known as “Little Texas”) and Santa Fe.  The “Granddaddy” of them all was at the New Mexico State Fair in which the best horses gathered every September for big purses.  In the early and mid 1980 crowds of 20,000 would jam the grandstands and daily handles exceeded $1 million during the annual exposition.

It was during that time a new racetrack, San Juan Downs, opened in Farmington.  The New Mexico State Fair, looking to increase revenues, added eleven days to the Fair meet for a total of 25 race days (it was originally 11 days, then 13, then 17 days).  The enterprise state agency also sought bids for a spring meet and it was awarded to the then owners of the Downs of Santa Fe.  The state’s biggest city suddenly had another 40-plus days of racing later expanded to 60.   Horse racing in New Mexico perhaps had reached its tipping point.

As part of a national trend, the average horse bettor (male, age 45+) got older and the sport failed to attract younger patrons for a variety of reasons.   One reason may be the complexity of the game.    While “amateur” gamblers maybe bet $2 on a horse because they liked its color, true handicapping requires intense studying of The Racing Form and an intimate knowledge of the horses, trainers and jockeys.  It also can be intimidating to place a bet when there are so many options and a long line of antsy bettors behind you.  Gamblers found other ways to play, but more on that later.

New Mexico had long attracted Texas money and had even endured the economic ups and downs of the oil patch, but in 1987 conservative Texas approved pari-mutuel betting on horseracing which was a blow to many of the New Mexico tracks.   (Definition of “pari-mutuel betting”:  a betting system in which all bets of a particular type is placed together in a pool; taxes and the track’s “hold” are removed, and payoff odds are calculated by sharing the pool among all winning bets.)

There is a lot of overhead in operating a race track and smaller crowds meant fewer sales of food and beverages and, of course, smaller handles.   Owning a racetrack was no longer a guaranteed winner and many tracks suffered.  But lurking in the shadows was the 600 pound gorilla that nearly killed horseracing in New Mexico, but in fact, save it.