09/08/2011 11:16AM

As Fairplex opens, fair circuit faces difficult questions

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Benoit & Associates
Known as the "King of Pomona," Martin Pedroza has won the last 12 riding titles at Fairplex, where his career strike rate is 22 percent. At Hollywood and Santa Anita, his strike rate is 11 percent.

In the early 1980s, when Martin Pedroza was not long removed from the well-regarded jockeys’ school in his native Panama, he saw the bullring at the racetrack in Pomona, Calif., for the first time. Pomona, 20 miles east of Santa Anita, hadn’t been renamed Fairplex Park yet − longwindedly, it was called the Los Angeles County Fair at Pomona − and was only four furlongs, from pillar to post. The turns looked like the end of a paperclip. The length of the stretch was 660 feet, 330 feet shorter than the one at Santa Anita.

“Geez,” Pedroza said. “What’s this?”

Years later, if Fairplex Park could talk, it would say this about Pedroza: “What’s this?”

Since 1933, when Pomona became the first track in Southern California to run under the state’s new parimutuel law, it has run 72 meets, and no one has come to own the joint like Pedroza. While done at the minor league level – Southern California’s best jockeys either go on vacation during Fairplex or cherry-pick prime mounts back east – Pedroza has put together one of the most incredible streaks in racing, racking up 12 straight titles. Last year was typical of his dominance: He won 45 races despite missing three of the 15 days because of a pinched nerve. The No.  2 rider on the list, Alonso Quinonez, won 15. Pedroza won more races than the next three jockeys in the standings combined.

With Pedroza in attendance, the Los Angeles County Fair, which surrounds Fairplex Park, opened for its 73rd season last weekend at Pomona, which despite its hoary heritage always seems like a work in progress. The racing season was set to open Friday, and this time there will be only 13 days to the meet, a concession to the statewide horse shortage and overall California economy. The Wednesdays during the meet will feature twilight racing, with a first post of 4 p.m., and the bridge-jumpers can loosen up, right behind the racetrack grandstand, by taking on the most showy addition to the County Fair’s Midway − the “Typhoon,” a German-designed roller coaster that is 50 times as high as any elephant’s eye.

Pomona is part of a statewide fair racing circuit that, like Fairplex itself, seems to be at a crossroads. There are no givens anymore. Fairs are disappearing, others are in jeopardy, and even some of the survivors are running with watered-down dates. Inheriting dates from struggling tracks on the main circuit –such as Hollywood Park and perhaps Golden Gate Fields – would seem to be a Band-Aid of a solution.

The fairs used to be anchored by Bay Meadows in the North and Fairplex in the South. But Bay Meadows, once the venue for the San Mateo County Fair meet, gave in to the excavators in 2008, and Golden Gate Fields, after running a fair meet in 2009, failed to muster an encore. The Solano County Fair in Vallejo, which ran its inaugural meet in 1951, has been dark for the last two years with no prospects for a revival next year. What remains, besides Pomona, are the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa, which ran the most dates (15) of any of the fairs this year; the California State Fair meet at Sacramento; the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton; the Fresno District Fair; the San Joaquin Fair in Stockton; and the Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale.

Once the compact Pomona season ends, there will have been 71 dates this year, a dropoff of four from the year before. The 5.3  percent decline is roughly the national average, and with Bay Meadows and Vallejo out of the picture, the circuit has taken its hits. But omit the black crepe and lillies, said Chris Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs (CARF).

“I’m very bullish,” he said. “The fairs have been around for a long time in California, and I think they will be around for a long time to come.”

Korby pointed out that Bay Meadows − both as a regular venue and a summertime site for a fair meet − is gone and that Hollywood Park is on borrowed time, waiting for the economy to revive and the property to be developed. Golden Gate, whose general manager, Robert Hartman, recently stepped down, is among several Bay Area sites vying to become a second campus for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. If Golden Gate is selected, the track is likely to be sold.

“No Hollywood Park dates, something perhaps going on at Golden Gate − this is going to call for a realignment of dates, and I would think the fairs would come into play,” Korby said.

Jim Henwood, the chief executive of the Pomona fair, said that no single track could expect to inherit the Hollywood Park dates; he feels there would be a sharing of the opportunity.

“I get the sense that both Santa Anita and Del Mar are happy that Fairplex is around,” he said. “We provide a nice breather between their meets while at the same time offering the smaller horsemen a chance to compete and make money.”

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The Los Angeles County Fair calls itself the largest county fair and fourth-largest fair of any kind in North America. Last year, the fair drew 1.3 million people. They pay an admission fee, which includes free admission to the track. Almost 145,000 of the fair goers also went to the races, and surveys conducted by the track indicate 16 percent are going to the races for the first time. Since 1988, the first year of the simulcast era in California, Fairplex has combined ontrack and offtrack attendance averages, and last year’s average, 9,547, was the first time the count dropped into the four-figure range. The highest was 18,750, in 1998, and that stark difference is just another indicator of what has happened to the sport in the state. In 1980, ontrack attendance at Pomona flirted with the 16,000 mark. All-sources handle, which topped $7 million in 2006, was $5 million in 2010.

“We can’t fractionalize our meet any more than what we’ve done this year, with the 13 days,” Henwood said. “We’ve gone from 19 racing days in the 1990s to 13 now, and this is a critical level. Once you fall behind in total handle, it’s hard to make it up. We hope to ask for more dates in the coming years, but right now we can’t sacrifice quality racing in the interest of running more days. We have about 850 horses on the grounds, which is down from 1,200, but we feel the 850 are all runners − they’re definitely here to run. Our goal is just over eight starters a race. We only have a 10-horse gate, so doing much more than eight is a real challenge.”

An important part of the Fairplex revenue is the Barretts horse sales. Fred Sahadi started the sales company in Pomona in 1990, and Fairplex, after being a minority partner in the beginning, took over all of Barretts in 2002. Fairplex runs stakes for 2-year-olds who come out of the Barretts sales. Squirtle Squirt, a pinhooked colt sold for $25,000 at Barretts, won one of those sales stakes in 2000 and the next year captured the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Other standouts who have raced at Pomona include Kona Gold and Fran’s Valentine. Free House broke his maiden there. Lava Man won there as a 3-year-old. Codex wasn’t good enough to win at Pomona, finishing fourth, but won the Santa Anita Derby and the Preakness the next year. Back in 1961, Physician won two stakes at Pomona, the year before he won the Santa Anita Handicap.

“Barretts needs a live racing meet, like the one we have, to give it viability,” Henwood said. “I can’t imagine Barretts continuing to operate if we no longer had live racing.”

Fairplex gives racing fans the chance to watch a rider crank out wins in machine-gun fashion, much the way a Bill Shoemaker did at the major tracks during his heyday. Pedroza not only reels off wins methodically, on a daily basis, he is capable of stringing together so many wins that there is hardly room for anyone else. In 2008, Pedroza won seven races in one day, backed off so to speak with three wins the next day, then returned on the third day for another seven-bagger. He is the track’s all-time leading rider, with 651 wins.

At Santa Anita and Hollywood, Pedroza has an 11 percent career strike rate. At Fairplex, his strike rate is 22 percent.

You have to virtually badger Pedroza into explaining why he’s so dominant at Fairplex.

“I don’t like to give away many of my secrets,” he said. “I’m superstitious, and I don’t want to be giving other riders much of a chance. Riding the best horses is part of it. But it also helps if you know which jockeys are good at riding the turns. You follow those riders as much as you can, to stay out of trouble. They’re more likely to have control of their horses and not get in your way.”

Pedroza and Doug O’Neill, the most dominant recent trainer at the track, expect to be out in full force at the 73rd Pomona meet. O’Neill has won six outright training titles and one co-title since 2002.

As a trainer, O’Neill was asked what’s the best way to win races at Fairplex.

“It doesn’t hurt to have Pedroza aboard,” he said. “He seems to make the right move all the time. But what you also need is a horse that can take the corners. It’s kind of a turf-course setting in that respect. Horses that run well on grass seem to do well there, because they’re used to making up ground on the turns. I used to be told that smaller horses were better at doing this, but over the years I don’t think this is true at Pomona. I’ve won a good share of my races there with bigger horses.”

Mel Stute has won six training titles or co-titles in Pomona, the first in 1971, the most recent in 2000. Now 84, he is the only charter member of the Fairplex Hall of Fame, and there is a Stutes’ Bar & Grille on the second mezzanine.

“Pomona is the only place I can go where I’m number one,” said Stute, who hasn’t done badly elsewhere, winning more than 2,000 races including a Preakness, with Snow Chief, and two Breeders’ Cups, with Brave Raj and Very Subtle. “They wanted to name the bar after me, but I wanted Warren to be included. He didn’t race that much at Pomona over the years, but he was there when I was just a little boy, following him around.”

In 2002, Fairplex, by then a five-furlong track and running 17-day meets, made a bold proposal to the California Horse Racing Board − moving its season to Santa Anita. More trainers, in opposition to abandoning Pomona, showed up at a board meeting than had been seen in some time. Jack Van Berg, the Hall of Famer, argued that leaving Pomona would hurt “the little guys who are the backbone of racing.”

Stute, who entering 2011 had won 189 races and 44 stakes at Pomona, more than anybody, echoed Van Berg’s sentiments. The board rejected the idea of Pomona going off campus.

“They don’t show up very often, but when they do, it’s in numbers,” Henwood said. “Trainers like Bruce Headley, Bob Baffert, and John Shirreffs were very strong in opposing the move, even though they seldom race at Pomona, if at all. Shirreffs made the point that it’s important to remember where he and a lot of the others began. A lot of them came up by racing at the fairs. We got the message. We waved the white flag.”