09/05/2007 12:00AM

For 2 1/2 weeks, it's pure dirt


POMONA, Calif. - Someday the quaint little five-eighth-mile track at Fairplex Park might not be so quaint, or so little.

The Los Angeles County Fair race meet begins Friday, and for the next 2 1/2 weeks it will be booming business as usual - cotton candy, Ferris wheels, a stakes race a day, and bet-with-both-fists wagering that topped $7.1 million daily last year, a record.

The 16-day fair meet will be over almost as soon as it begins; closing day is Sept. 24. But the niche is expanding, and though Fairplex remains a minor meet sandwiched between Del Mar and Oak Tree at Santa Anita, Fairplex someday could be as relevant as any major track in California.

"It's really dependent on Hollywood Park, and their plan for the future," said Mike Seder, Los Angeles County Fair vice president, finance. "If [Hollywood] stays in racing, then Fairplex will continue to do what it does best."

That is, hosting the annual fair race meet and the sales at Barretts, and staying open for training.

There is plenty to like about the status quo. The 2007 racing season is the 69th at the Los Angeles County Fair, where the grandstand is on top of the action and class levels range from $5,000 claiming to $100,000 stakes. The racing is good. It also is minor-league.

The reputation may change. Fairplex could reinvent itself and become a year-round racing-training venue if Hollywood shuts down racing and develops its land.

"If that happens, it brings [Fairplex] to a different place than where we are today," Seder said. "At that point, we're looking at a mile track, a turf course."

Fairplex estimates a 30-month time frame to complete the project - obtain financing, clear legislative hurdles, design and construct the new facility. It is plenty for the California Horse Racing Board to consider in its next meeting of the Strategic Planning Committee. Meanwhile, the more pressing issue is the racing that begin Friday at Fairplex.

"It is the only dirt track in Southern California," racing secretary Richard Wheeler said. "Some horses don't like Polytrack or Cushion Track, and they prefer the dirt. It should help this meet."

Wheeler has about 1,250 horses on the grounds, and expectations are for full fields.

Jeff Mullins and Doug O'Neill will be two of the most active stables at the meet. Mullins set a Fairplex record last year winning 17 races; O'Neill led the Fairplex standings from 2002 to 2005.

Even before the synthetic era, the surface at Fairplex had gained a reputation as the safest dirt track in Southern California, and formful. Favorites won 41 percent of Thoroughbred races last year (67 for 163), and the combined win percent for favorites the past five years is 38 percent.

However, the 2007 meet represents a new challenge. For the first time, handicappers will assess the chances of Fairplex dirt horses based on their performances on completely different surfaces - grass, Polytrack, or Cushion Track.

Fairplex tweaked the early-season stakes schedule. The 6 1/2-furlong Foothill Stakes for 3-year-olds has been moved from its traditional opening-day spot to Monday. In its place, 3-year-olds will race 1 1/16 miles in the $65,000 Derby Trial and possibly run back Sept. 22 in the $100,000 Pomona Derby.

All 11 entrants in the Derby Trial made their last start on a surface other than fast. Six raced on synthetic, four raced on turf, and one raced on a sloppy track at Lone Star. Mr. Nightlinger finished third in the Grade 3 Lone Star Derby, and will be one of the favorites Friday under all-time leading Fairplex rider Martin Pedroza.

Tyler Baze may have the horse to beat in the Derby Trial with turf-to-dirt Law Breaker. Agapito Delgadillo, the second-leading Fairplex rider in 2006, is on Snow Chief Stakes winner Leesider.