09/21/2001 11:00PM

Fairplex may close after 68 years

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POMONA, Calif. - A storied chapter of California racing will end Monday, closing day of the Los Angeles County Fair race meet, according to several racing officials and horsemen.

Instead, these people say, fair racing, which has been conducted since 1933 at Fairplex Park, will be held next season at Hollywood Park, and Fairplex will cease to exist as a racing facility.

Los Angeles County Fair officials denied that their race dates would be switched to Hollywood next season, but others said that Churchill Downs Inc., the parent company of Hollywood Park, is negotiating to take over the 17-day meet. One official said a deal is expected to be reached in the next two weeks.

"We have our dates approved for next year, and we plan to race here," said Wendy Talarico, the communciations and public relations manager for Faiplex Park. "That's all they are - rumors. We're not planning on racing anywhere next year other than Fairplex."

Churchill Downs officials declined to comment on the possibility of taking over the dates, which would run Sept. 13-29, 2002. Karl Schmidt, the Churchill Downs spokesman, said: "We're really not in position to talk about dates."

There has been growing speculation over the last two weeks that the Fair was nearing an agreement with Churchill Downs on a reassignment of its dates. On Friday morning, several horsemen said Fairplex officials had informed them the current meet would be the last.

Fairplex Park is a five-eighths mile racetrack 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Its meet has been a traditional bridge between the end of Del Mar and Santa Anita Oak Tree. Dates for 2002 were assigned on Aug. 24 by the California Horse Racing Baord, but it seems likely the dates could be reassigned pending approval of the Fair and Churchill Downs.

In addition to filling a small spot in the Southern California racing calender, Fairplex has provided smaller stables the chance at big purses while generating one of the larger handles in the country. During the 2000 meet, Fairplex produced an average daily handle of more than $5.8 million. This year, the meet was scheduled to award more than $1.1 million in purses. Fairplex canceled one day because of the terrorist attacks for a 17-day meet.

Mel Stute, the all-time leading trainer at Fairplex Park, said: "In every sport, there are traditions, and this place is one of them."

If Fairplex Park is closed as a racing facility, it is believed the property will be developed into a shopping center or entertainment complex.