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When a handful of prominent Albuquerque businessmen organized the first Territorial Fair near Old Town in 1881, the first structure they built was a racetrack and grandstand. The racetrack offered sulky, horse, burro, mule and foot races.

The crowd had plenty to watch. As races continued, the Albuquerque Browns played baseball in the oval inside the track. Betting was heavy on both races and baseball. In its second year the fair included a four-mile foot race by Zuni runners. Other events were horse and harness racing, and bicycle and burro racing. A 1908 photograph of the Indian Marathon shows runners in bare feet or moccasins.

In 1917 the fair succumbed to financial pressures, but local boosters revived the fair in the 1930s. When Gov. Clyde Tingley secured funding from the federal Works Progress Administration, one of the first developments at the new site was a one-mile track, grandstand, racing office and jockey room. The fair reopened in 1938.

New Mexico was then the only state with pari-mutuel racing, and 5,000 fans packed the grandstand the first day. Horsemen – some from as far away as Montana – filled the adobe stalls. There were harness and steeplechase races, trotters and pacers.

That year the fair refused to register two women jockeys, Harriet Coneel and Helen Currier. Two other female riders, Wanda Banks and Alma Lloyd, had obtained their racing licenses from another track before the fair. Banks and Lloyd were two of the best riders ever to race in New Mexico and were so popular with fans that fair officials built a female dressing area for them the next year.

After the war, fair racing became the biggest such event in the Rocky Mountain region.


Athletic Firemen

Another sport in the 1880s and 1890s was the endurance contest between companies of volunteer firemen. In those days, firemen, and not horses, pulled the fire cart. The first men to respond to a fire bell began towing it toward the fire; others dashed through the streets and took their places inside a harness. As the men and their cart gained speed, the slower runners released their harnesses and got out of the way.

At the early state fairs firemen competed in such events as coupling team trials, wet and dry hose tests and hose cart and foot races. These events became so popular, they drew contestants from Arizona. Betting could reach $15,000 on an event, and the outcome was a matter of civic pride.


The National Pastime

In 1880, W.T. McCreight, a former player with the St. Louis Browns, organized Albuquerque's first baseball team. He also organized a training club of boys called McCreight’s Colts.

Because baseball season was finished in the East when the Territorial Fair opened,  major league players could be recruited for $100 plus expenses. Sometimes they formed a team to play exhibition games against the Browns, and sometimes they joined the Browns for games against rival towns. Albuquerque’s arch rival then was San Marcial, near Socorro. In 1894 the San Marcial team lost its game and its bets and had to walk home.

The first Albuquerque Dukes played in 1915. In 1931 the Albuquerque Dons became the city’s first professional team.  During the Depression, Gov. Clyde Tingley secured federal WPA funding to build bleachers and a 4,000-seat concrete grandstand at the ballpark at 10th and Atlantic in the Barelas Neighborhood.

When it opened in 1937, Branch Rickey, general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, had high praise for Tingley and the Works Progress Administration. The Albuquerque Cardinals then lost an exhibition game to the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1938 the park was named Tingley Field.

Tingley Field had a capacity of 3,000 seats, but often 5,000 fans overflowed the stadium. When the batter hit a home run, he strolled along the bleachers, and fans handed him money.

The Albuquerque Cardinals were a farm club to the St. Louis Cardinals from 1937 to 1941. During World War II Tingley Field closed from 1942 until 1946. Baseball fans were entertained by semi-pro clubs and Kirtland’s Flying Kellys, which included major and minor league players.

In 1945 the team was sold and joined the West Texas-New Mexico League, playing as the Albuquerque Dukes until 1958. In 1954 a local pitcher joined the team for a time: Pete Domenici.

Baseball’s popularity waned in Albuquerque in the early 1950s, and “Save the Dukes” became a slogan by 1954. A local group bought the team, and they continued to play ball, but they were losing money. Farmington oilman Tom Bolack assumed the team’s debts in 1956. Bolack negotiated a working arrangement with the Cincinnati Reds in 1958, then the Kansas City Athletics in 1960. In 1963 the Los Angeles Dodgers bought the franchise from Bolack, and the team became a Triple-A club. They were renamed the Albuquerque Dodgers in 1965.

Baseball continued in Tingley Field until 1968 when the existing stadium first opened.

Robert Lozinak bought the team from the Dodgers in 1979 and sold it in March 2000 to a group in Portland, Ore. The Dukes departed for good.

Bereft of their team and convinced they needed a better stadium to lure a new team, Albuquerque voters in May 2001 approved general obligation bonds to upgrade the stadium. Businessmen Ken Young and Mike Koldyke acquired the Calgary Cannons and moved them to Albuquerque, then signed an agreement with the Florida Marlins.

In 2004 Triple-A baseball returned with completion of an 18-month, $28.8 million renovation of the stadium. Inspired by an episode of “The Simpsons,” team owners chose to call their team the Isotopes. The new Isotopes Park has a capacity of 13,000, up from 7,500 previously and is one of the finest stadiums in the Pacific Coast League.


The Best of the Best

Owen Smaulding, who moved to Albuquerque from Clayton, N.M., was named the most outstanding athlete in the United States in 1915.  He participated in track, football, tennis, baseball and race-car driving. In 1937 he managed a team called the Collegians and later the St. Louis Blues, playing in the Negro Baseball League. He alternated pitching with Satchel Page.


Car Racing

            Albuquerque’s first speed limit in 1908 was 8 miles an hour. That didn’t keep automobile enthusiasts from finding out who had the fastest vehicle.

            In 1916 the state’s first distance car race took place. The Albuquerque Automobile Racing Association staged a race from Albuquerque to Gallup over a segment of the National Old Trails system, the forerunner of Route 66. It normally took 13 hours to drive from Albuquerque to Gallup. In that race Lloyd Cunningham, driving a Maxwell, won in six hours, 53 minutes.

Albuquerque would gain a high profile in car racing from the Unser family, who in the 1940s operated a wrecking service at their Unser Garage on 7700 Central SW. Since 1964, either Al Unser, brother Bobby or Al Jr. has been in every Indianapolis 500 except one. Al won four races, Bobby won three, and Al Jr. won two.

The Unsers have opened their Unser Racing Museum in the North Valley, which features 28 of their race cars, plus other memorabilia the family has collected and items from other racers.


Lobo Football

            UNM started its football program in 1892, three years after the school was founded. Back then the team was called the University Boys. They lost their first game on Oct. 7 to Albuquerque High School by a score of 5-0.

            In 1920 a UNM student journalist named George S. Bryan suggested "Lobo" (Spanish for “wolf”) as UNM's mascot. "The Lobo is respected for his cunning, feared for his prowess, and is the leader of the pack," he wrote in an editorial in the Oct. 1, 1920, issue of the UNM student newspaper.

            That was the same year Coach Roy Johnson arrived at UNM. Johnson was a shot in the arm to an otherwise lackluster athletic program. From then until 1959, he coached football, basketball and track, and his teams were winners. For his huge impact Johnson Gym, built in 1957, was named for him. In 1958 the first eight black football players joined the team.

UNM has produced two football stars: Halfback Don Perkins, later with the Dallas Cowboys, who played during a winning seven-season stretch (1958-64); and Brian Urlacher, with the Chicago Bears.


Lobo Basketball
            University basketball players had posted years of losses through the 1940s and 1950s. Lobo Basketball as we know it today didn’t begin until Bob King arrived in 1962 from Iowa. King brought a 6-foot-81/2-inch player named Ira Harge, who would become one of the university’s greatest athletes.

            King quickly turned the team around, and fans noticed. Tepid crowds of a few hundred quickly grew to thousands and began filling Johnson Gym. In 1966 UNM built University Arena, fondly known as The Pit, saving money by hollowing an arena out of the ground instead of erecting it above ground, and 7,000 fans became 15,000 fans. Screaming, barking, howling fans. Lobomania was born. In 1975 the university added a mezzanine, expanding space for 18,000. And the fans are still wild.

            Bob King died in 2004 and was eulogized as the architect of Lobo basketball.


Lady Lobos had an equally modest beginning. Before New Mexico was a state, UNM women had two basketball teams – the Olympians and Gladiators. They played in knee-length bloomers, heavy stockings and big collars with bows.

In the 1970s, thanks to Title IX, women’s sports began in earnest at UNM. From the 1990s on, women's basketball, under the guidance of coach Don Flanagan, took off and has been nationally ranked in attendance for years.



Boxing has long been part of the city’s sports scene. In 1897 the first movie shown in Albuquerque was of a fight between boxers Bob Fitzsimmons and James Corbett for the world championship.

            Fighter Bobbie Foster had a training gym in Albuquerque. He won the world light heavyweight title in 1968 and kept it until he retired in 1974 with 56 wins, eight losses and one tie. In his time he took on such daunting opponents as Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. When he wasn’t boxing, Foster was a Bernalillo County deputy sheriff. For his weight, he was one of the deadliest punchers in history.

In recent years, Johnny Tapia is a five-time world champion. Danny Romero is a three-time world champion.


            Albuquerque’s first skier was probably Charlotte Ellis, who in 1896 strapped on a pair of skis crafted by her brother and set out in the Sandias, where her father had a homestead.

            The father of skiing as we know it is Bob Nordhaus. Growing up in Albuquerque, Nordhaus had already spent time in the mountains, but as a Yale student in the early 1930s, he came to appreciate the popularity of skiing in the East. When he returned to Albuquerque in 1935, he and his wife Virginia skied by walking up slopes and sliding down. In 1936 he organized the Albuquerque Ski Club. There was no ski area, no tow and nobody to teach them the sport. Skis were wooden; rubber from inner tubes held boots to skis.

            That year the U.S. Forest Service built a small warming hut and cleared a slope at Tree Spring in the Sandias. Next the agency established a system of trails, and La Madera Ski Area was born.

            In 1940 Nordhaus enlisted and, because of his skiing experience, served in the famed 10th Mountain Division. When he returned after the war, in 1945, he started a rope tow at La Madera. Lift tickets were $1. Nordhaus decided to turn his hobby into a business and formed La Madera Co. He bought the club’s assets, sold stock, and built a T-bar lift that was the longest in the nation.  But the weather didn’t cooperate, and it wasn’t profitable for years.

            In 1957 Ben Abruzzo became ski area manager and a year later bought half the assets from Nordhaus. Two years later the road to the ski area was paved. In 1963 they added a double-chair lift and a mountain-top restaurant and changed the name of the ski area to Sandia Peak.



            Notah Begay III is from Albuquerque and learned to play at Ladera Golf Course. Half Navajo and half Pueblo, he’s the first Native American player to reach top-ten status on the PGA. And he was the only player who could putt equally well right-handed or left-handed.

And another Albuquerquean, Rosie Jones, won more than $4 million during her LPGA career.



Cathy Carr West and Trent Dimas are New Mexico's Olympic gold medalists. She won her gold in swimming in 1972 at Munich; he won his in gymnastics in 1992 at Barcelona.



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