09/07/2010 4:30PM

Back to dirt at the Fairplex Park bullring

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POMONA, Calif. – California horse racing returns to traditional footing Thursday when Fairplex Park launches its 72nd autumn meet on the five-eighths mile dirt track that is home of the Los Angeles County Fair.

Handicappers challenged by the high number (13) of pick six carryovers during Del Mar’s seven-week summer meet will find either comfort or tedium at Fairplex, where the combined win rate of Thoroughbred favorites the past three seasons is 39 percent.

The 15-day Fairplex season begins like many recent meets – with cuts to stakes. Fairplex sliced purses for the Pomona Derby and Las Madrinas Handicap to $50,000, which makes them indistinguishable to virtually every other stakes. The Ralph M. Hinds Pomona Handicap, centerpiece of the meet, took a $50,000 cut to $75,000.

“You don’t like to cut back on the stakes schedule,” explained racing secretary Tom Knust. “It’s a sign of the times. You have an overnight program that you want to keep strong.”

Total purses for the 15-day meet will exceed $3.1 million.

The richest races of the meet are sales stakes with an estimated purse of $115,000 each – the Barretts Debutante for 2-year-old fillies on Sept. 18, and the Barretts Juvenile for 2-year-olds of either gender on Sept. 19. The races are restricted to horses that were offered for sale at a Barretts auction.

Those two races will be part of a “Barretts Weekend of the Stars” promotion in which cards similar to baseball cards featuring Barretts graduates such as Awesome Gem and Squirtle Squirt will be distributed free to fans.

While the stakes program at Fairplex has waned in significance, the wagering menu and overnight program has changed. Chief among the 2010 improvements is the addition of a pick four on races 3-6 to complement a pick four on the final four races daily.

The minimum pick-four wager has been lowered from $1 to 50 cents. It is a change that Fairplex equine manager Kim Lloyd admits is based on success of the lowered minimum this summer at Del Mar.

“They were up 10 percent in pick four handle,” Lloyd said. “It was something we saw that was beneficial and that we could take action on.”

It remains to be seen how the wagering-menu adjustment will influence overall handle. During the 2009 meet, overall handle exceeded $82 million, an average of more than $5.5 million daily.

The stables at Fairplex will be at maximum capacity, nearly 1,400 horses according to Knust. In past years, the Fairplex equine population hovered at about 1,000. The reason for the increase is Santa Anita is closed for training, with no horses on the grounds. The remainder of the Southern California population will be stabled at Hollywood Park.

While the horse population at Fairplex will include horses not ready to race, Knust hopes to pick up a few starters that would otherwise not have considered racing at the meet.

The Bob Baffert-trained Subsidized is the favorite Thursday in the opening-day stakes, the $50,000 Beverly J. Lewis for 3-year-old fillies at 6 1/2 furlongs. She will be ridden by Fairplex all-time leading rider Martin Pedroza, who in race 6 meets David Flores in a match race dubbed “King of the Ring.”

The season-long racing program will include two mixed-breed races each weekday – one race for mules and another for Arabians. Quarter Horse races also are scheduled, but due to resistance from Los Alamitos, it is unclear if the Quarter horse races will fill.

On weekends, the racing programs will be all-Thoroughbred. First post every racing day is 1 p.m. Fairplex runs its races every 25 minutes.

Fairplex also has opened Long Board Bar, an open-air bar which connects the fair to the paddock area. The intention is to attract causal fairgoers into the racetrack, which is free with fair admission.

Another improvement is the installation of a tote board on the roof over the paddock. In previous years, fans near the paddock were forced to seek a television screen to monitor the odds.

The board of stewards at Fairplex includes former jockey Darrell McHargue, former trainer Randy Winick, and HRTV commentator Jon White. TVG will broadcast live from Fairplex each racing day.