09/07/2011 3:53PM

Fairplex pares meet to boost quality

Benoit & Associates
California Nectar will be a heavy favorite in Friday's $50,000 Beverly J. Lewis Stakes.

POMONA, Calif. – A slimmer Los Angeles County Fair race meet begins Friday, and while deep-fried treats and cotton candy tempt casual fairgoers, horseplayers at Fairplex Park will discover a racing program that has trimmed the fat.

Fairplex lopped two days of racing, reduced by 22 percent the number of Thoroughbred races, and eliminated mules from the program. What remains is a sleek, 13-day meet with expectations for increased field size, higher payoffs, and challenging handicapping.

“We were too aggressive last year,” racing secretary Tom Knust said, referring to the 15-day fair meet in 2010 during which 158 Thoroughbred races were run.

In hindsight, it was a mistake.

“We didn’t have the horses to support it,” Knust said.

“It was too unwieldy last year,” equine manager Kim Lloyd said. “We were spreading it so thin and forced to use more half-mile races than we would have liked. We felt the best way to address that was to shrink it down some.”

Fairplex took bold steps. Rather than re-open again Thursday, just one day after closing day at Del Mar, Fairplex opens Friday. At the back end of the short meet, Fairplex eliminated a sleepy final Monday and will end with a big card Sunday, Sept. 25. There are 129 Thoroughbred races scheduled this fall, compared to 158 last year.

“We want to increase field size and offer attractive betting opportunities,” Lloyd said. “The first day, it worked out really well.”

With one notable exception Friday – the $50,000 Beverly J. Lewis Stakes with five runners – the 10-race card is replete with full fields as Fairplex tries to re-establish its average of more than eight starters per race. Average field size in 2010 was only 7.15.

Along with the “less-is-better” racing theme, the enhanced wagering menu for 2011 includes a 50-cent daily pick five (14 percent takeout) on races 3-7. The menu also includes two pick fours with a 50-cent minimum, on races 2-5 and the last four races. The $2 pick six covers the final six races.

Handicappers will find familiar names at the top of the jockey and trainer standings – Martin Pedroza and Doug O’Neill. Pedroza has led the Fairplex jockey standings 12 consecutive years (1999-2010); his 650 career wins at Fairplex is the all-time high.

O’Neill led the Fairplex trainer standings seven of the past nine years; his 99 career wins at Fairplex ranks third all time behind Mel Stute and Jerry Fanning. O’Neill and Pedroza will team often during the fair and figure to score at least once Friday with the apparent standout California Nectar in the $50,000 Beverly Lewis Stakes.

“We’re going to be active when it makes sense,” O’Neill said. “I do have a lot of live horses right now.”

O’Neill said it was owner Pablo Suarez’s idea to run California Nectar in the Lewis.

Suarez “tries to give his horses every opportunity to win, and he likes to see those superman silks in the winner’s circle,” O’Neill said. “This race is a lot easier than the Rancho Bernardo [a Grade 3 at Del Mar], which I had nominated her for.”

California Nectar has won four races and $275,400 from 10 starts, including the Grade 2 Santa Ynez at Santa Anita. Based on a sharp comeback win against fillies and mares at Del Mar and an apparent pace edge, front-runner California Nectar should be tough to beat in the Lewis for 3-year-old fillies. She is 3-5 on the preliminary morning line.

Other starters in the Lewis include True Way of Grace, who returns to the site of her only victory. Alexis Barba trains True Way of Grace, winner of the Barretts Debutante here in 2010. The five-horse Lewis field also includes Joe Ja, Skipton Creek, and Sentimental Ballad.

The richest stakes at the fair carry a $100,000-estimated purse – the Barretts Debutante for 2-year-old fillies on Sept. 17 and Barretts Juvenile for either gender on Sept. 18. The stakes are restricted to horses that were offered in any Barretts sale.

A $50,000 stakes doubleheader on the final Saturday, Sept. 24, includes the Pomona Derby for 3-year-olds and Las Madrinas Handicap for fillies and mares. The $75,000 Ralph M. Hinds Handicap for older horses is offered closing day, Sept. 25.

Fairplex at a glance

Racing schedule: 13-day meet, Sept. 9 through Sept. 25; dark Mondays and Tuesdays.

Post times: 1 p.m. Thursday through Sunday; 4 p.m. Wednesdays.

Admission: Included with L.A. County Fair admission ($12 weekdays, $17 weekends).

Meet highlights:
• Sept. 17 - $100,000 Barretts Debutante
• Sept. 18 - $100,000 Barretts Juvenile
• Sept. 24 - $50,000 Pomona Derby
• Sept. 24 - $50,000 Las Madrinas Handicap
• Sept. 25 - $75,000 Ralph M. Hinds

Location: 101 W. McKinley Ave., Pomona, Calif.

Phone: (909) 865-4545

Internet: www.fairplexpark.com