10/07/2011 4:54PM

For a day, the richest town in the West


Believe it or not, there are actual flesh-and-blood horse racing fans out there who are not similarly obsessed with all things pro football. In fact – and I know this stretches the bounds of accepted reality – there are solid American citizens who could give a rat’s patoot about anything having to do with the National Eff-Ell and, if given the right incentive, they might try turning to a diversion as exotic as betting on quality Thoroughbreds in ferocious action.

The possibility clearly did not register with some of racing’s shopkeepers when they put their goods in the window for this Sunday, a golden autumn day on which everyone except for football junkies will be looking for something to do. A search of the entries at tracks out West reveals not a single stakes event worth as much as $100,000, which has been a reasonable threshold for attracting the public’s attention since, oh, about 1935, when the Santa Anita Handicap made its debut at a cool hundred grand.

At that same Santa Anita, Sunday’s featured Lou Rowan Stakes offers $65,000 at 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course. The half-dozen fillies and mares entered will run hard and earn the dough, but do not ask that the winner’s name be etched in stone just yet.

So where’s the real racing action on Sunday? Would you believe the Big Fresno Fair. East Coasters, get out your Google Maps, go north from the L.A. basin, scan past Bakersfield – yes, those are cows – and settle on the next cluster of civilization straddling U.S. Highway 99. That’s Fresno, Raisin Capital of the World, Gateway to Yosemite National Park, and home on Sunday of the richest Thoroughbred race run West of the Mississippi.

The $75,000 Soviet Problem is offered for 2-year-old fillies at a mile and one-sixteenth. The Fresno oval is a mile around, so don’t be thinking this is some bullring baloney, and the track record for the distance is a lickity-split 1:39.80, set in 1976 by a colt named Dimaggio, who was owned by local agri-magnate John Valpredo. His son Donald Valpredo kept the local family farm running and even found time to own pieces of some good Thoroughbreds along the way, including Soviet Problem. She was beaten a lousy head in the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Sprint by Cherokee Run, otherwise the fair itself probably would have been named for her by now.

On Sunday, the field for the Soviet Problem will feature the same colors flown by Goldikova last weekend at Longchamp. Indecise, a daughter of Pleasant Tap, will likely go favored off her maiden win at Golden Gate three weeks ago, although it also helps to have the names of Hall of Famers Russell Baze and Richard Mandella attached. It is not known if Alain or Gerard Wertheimer will be in attendance, connections from Paris to the San Joaquin Valley being what they are.

Real Dream, a Cat Dreams filly trained by Craig Dollase, will get a serious look while coming off a second at the L.A. County Fair to Candrea, who just missed last Sunday in the Oak Leaf. The muscle-bound barns of Jerry Hollendorfer (Killer Graces) and Jeff Bonde (Coup de Coeur) are also represented in the Soviet Problem, which raises the question posed by hard-knocking Northern California horsemen since the beginning of time: Why can’t those big guys give us a break?

Ed Moger Jr. has been training horses for more than 30 years, most of the time in Northern California but in the South when he can. He is tackling the Soviet Problem with Distant Image, who has won two of her three races at a level considerably below stakes quality.

“You have a horse like this it’s hard to find a place for her to run,” Moger said. “I saw the nominations for the Fresno stake were light in numbers, so I was hoping the tough ones wouldn’t show up and it might be an easy spot for $75,000.”

Distant Image is a daughter of the turf specialist Decarchy, who won the Kilroe Mile and the Tanforan Handicap for Bobby Frankel and stands at Magali Farm in Santa Ynez. His daughter has been run three times over three different surfaces for Moger and was well spotted in each. After nailing her maiden on Tapeta for a $12,500 tag at Golden Gate (three times her sire’s stud fee), Moger jumped her into a $40,000 starter allowance on the turf and watched her win again.

He is under no delusions, however, that she can tussle with the fillies in the Soviet Problem. But she has a right to try.

“And she does try hard,” Moger said. “I thought she’d like the turf the other day and she did – got out there on the lead and didn’t stop. It’s just that there’s no other place to run her, and it’s like that all over. I’ve been trying to enter a 3-year-old filly for $20,000 here at Santa Anita since the meet opened, and the race hasn’t gone yet.”

The Big Fresno Fair runs for only another week, wrapping up business on Oct. 16. You’ve already missed Merle Haggard, who was there last Thursday night, but the winner of the Soviet Problem can celebrate by taking in Los Tucanes de Tijuana Sunday evening. And, heaven help us, Billy Idol will be in the house later this week. Keep him away from the horses.

“I can tell you one thing about that place,” Moger said. “They really take care of the horsemen. They’ve been improving it every single year, the front side and the barn area. It’s a long ways to ship a horse to run, but it can be worth it.”