Raton off to the racino races

ALBUQUERQUE — The state Gaming Control Board has authorized a casino license for a proposed $50 million horse racing track in the northeastern New Mexico community of Raton.

Canadian developer Michael Moldenhauer said construction should begin within the next two weeks. He will build on 225 acres near the former La Mesa Park racetrack, which opened in 1946 and closed in 1992. The state Racing Commission issued approval in January for horse racing at the proposed track.

“It’s nice to finally have the regulatory approvals we need to get started on construction,” Moldenhauer said. “We’ve been at this for five years.”

The board acted Tuesday after an investor, Marc Correra, withdrew his involvement in the project. A Gaming Control Board release indicated Correra “has decided to focus on other business opportunities.”

At a May 20 meeting, the board postponed a decision on the license, citing concerns about Correra’s $1.2 million contribution to the bid.
Correra has come under scrutiny in recent months after he shared in more than $15 million in fees for helping money management firms secure investment business from New Mexico’s permanent and pension funds.

Around the country, fees paid to placement agents have been scrutinized because of an influence-peddling and kickback scandal involving a New York state retirement fund. Correra has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Moldenhauer said he would make a larger contribution to the project to help compensate for the $1.2 million Correra would have added to the Raton racetrack.

Four board members voted to approve the casino license and voted in favor on a “suitability” vote on Moldenhauer. The fifth, Demesia Padilla, abstained on the casino license and voted against Moldenhauer.

She explained afterward that she believes Moldenhauer is a good businessman but expressed vague concerns about the project’s transparency. Padilla said she was limited in what she could discuss because of business confidentiality.

“There have been times I haven’t felt fully confident and comfortable with the financial information that has been presented to us,” she said. “At this point, suffice it to say that as the CPA on the board, I’m not convinced of all the financial records that have been submitted _ and the accuracy.”

Board Chairman David Norvell told Moldenhauer the project carries great significance to the Raton area and he’s responsible for a large measure of the community’s economic outlook.

“Do not leave Raton flapping in the northeastern New Mexico breeze,” Norvell said to Moldenhauer. “Failure is not an option.”
The Raton site will be the sixth and final New Mexico racetrack.

Regulators agreed to cap the number of so-called “racinos” — racetracks with casinos — at six when the state renegotiated gambling compacts with New Mexico’s casino-operating tribes in 2007. The compacts were extended until 2037.

The situation is unlikely to change unless the compacts are renegotiated or the Legislature or the tribes take some drastic measure that would void the compacts. Neither scenario appears likely.