09/28/2003 11:00PM

Bigger fields, record handle at meet

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POMONA, Calif. - Strategies designed to minimize the effect of the shrinking horse population in Southern California proved successful for racing officials at Fairplex Park, where the 17-day Los Angeles County Fair meet ended Sunday.

Fairplex increased the number of mixed-breed races and subsidized transportation costs for out-of-town racing stables, hoping to increase both field size and wagering handle. It worked. Field size increased an average of 0.5 starters per race and generated total handle of $105,533,521 - a record daily average of more than $6.2 million.

The Fairplex meet provides a bridge from Del Mar to the start of the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, and this year it offered a unique twist. The first race of the meet was for mules - 11 mule races were run overall - and the track averaged nearly two mixed-breed races a day (33 overall) for mules, Appaloosas, and Quarter Horses. By increasing the number of mixed-breed races, officials relieved pressure on the Thoroughbred program, which led to increased field size.

Racing manager George Bradvica said that Thoroughbred fields averaged 8.1 starters per race, an increase over last year's 7.6 average. "We needed to have more horses here," Bradvica said. "Full fields and competitive racing are what people wanted."

They got it, and the dividends were felt immediately. Large fields led to competitive racing and a three-day carryover in the pick six to start the meet. More than $672,000 was wagered into the pick six on Fairplex's first Monday card (Sept. 15), and the momentum in handle was sustained throughout the meet. On the final Saturday (Sept. 27), the track smashed the previous one-day record by handling more than $10.2 million, nearly $800,000 more than the previous record.

"The buzz, the excitement, the fun, we were able to capture that," Bradvica said. "No other meet does that other than Del Mar."

Ontrack attendance declined 3 percent to 114,648, a daily average of 6,744. Overall attendance, including intertrack wagering facilities, was 278,945, an increase of 4.8 percent over 2002.

On the racetrack, jockey Martin Pedroza won his fifth consecutive Fairplex riding title with 31 wins - including six of the 17 stakes - from 116 mounts. Pedroza extended his all-time leading win total to 380, despite distractions: Pedroza received two three-day suspensions for riding infractions (both are on appeal) and was fined $300 for disorderly conduct after a race in which Pedroza was disqualified. Pedroza also missed the final Friday of the meet when he was jailed on a battery warrant and later released.

Jockey Ryan Fogelsonger, riding in California full time for the first time, finished second in the standings with 22 wins while establishing relationships with leading California trainers, including Doug O'Neill and Jeff Mullins.

O'Neill won 10 races at Fairplex and tied with Wesley Ward for the Thoroughbred training title. It was the second consecutive Fairplex title for O'Neill, who started 45 runners. Ward won 10 races with only 21 starters, a phenomenal 47 percent win rate. Trainer Ray Thomas, who specialized in mixed-breed races, also won 10 races.

Mullins had eight winners from 25 starters and was the leading stakes trainer. His three stakes wins included Excess Summer in the $100,000 Pomona Derby.

Bold Roberta won two stakes during the meet. A 5-year-old mare, Bold Roberta won the $100,000 Las Madrinas Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on Sept. 26, just seven days after winning the $50,000 Pio Pico Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Trainer Mel Stute won 4 of 19 starts and on Sept. 27 became the first inductee into the Fairplex Park Hall of Fame. Stute's four wins extended his all-time leading total to 176. Fairplex will induct at least one Hall of Fame member each year.