09/05/2012 3:43PM

Fairplex Park meet begins amid talk of expansion

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POMONA, Calif. – The expansive freeway system in Southern California makes it easy to find a major racetrack – Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar are located near key arteries.

While those three tracks host most of the circuit’s year-round racing calendar, autumn always marks a welcome return to Fairplex Park, the five-furlong dirt track where the Los Angeles County Fair meet begins Friday with optimism – short term and long range.

Fairplex holds a blueprint for a $40 million initial expansion that would transform the historic facility into a modern racetrack/training center, one that someday might replace Hollywood Park.

The chance of that happening is arguable. The industry has been warned for years about Hollywood’s pending closure. Still, the track continues to hold two meets each year, in spring and fall. But when Hollywood officials early this year told the California Horse Racing Board it could not guarantee a 2013 fall meet, the Fairplex option re-emerged.

“Fairplex has a willingness, [Los Angeles County Fair president] Jim Henwood has stepped up, and it would stabilize the industry going forward,” Fairplex general manager Kim Lloyd said. “Hollywood is a great facility, but the uncertainty is a bit of an issue.”

The Fairplex proposal includes expansion of the main track to 15/16ths of a mile, installation of a turf course, along with construction of new stables and housing for backstretch employees.

“The plans are for top-class facilities,” Lloyd said. “If you had stabling here year-round, a great racetrack, and a certain future, then there is something to build on. And it’s a terrific location, bordered by the 210, 57, 10, 60, and 15 [freeways]. This is Los Angeles.”

Yes, Fairplex is easy to find. And though transformation of the circuit remains a challenge, the mere discussion of a racing future at Fairplex is a sign of changing times. Some recent seasons, the main topic of discussion opening day was whether that Fairplex meet would be the last.

Funding for the $40 million project would require cooperation across the board.

“The main thing is the funding,” Lloyd said. “It would have to come from industry participation.”

It always comes back to money, which is an issue Fairplex is all too familiar with. The past three seasons, the track grappled with a severe purse overpayment of more than $600,000 that necessitated cuts to stakes and overnight races for the 13-day meet. The tide turned in 2011, when business was good and the books finally balanced.

“Last year, we got everything back,” racing secretary Tom Knust said. “That means no more overpayment. We are even. Now whatever we generate, we can give away” in purses.

Racing officials always put on a cheerful face at the start of a meet, and this fall Knust has valid reasons for optimism. Purses are up 20 percent from last year, and onsite horse inventory will be up 40 percent to an estimated 700 horses.

Fairplex racing is blue-collar racing. Top horses occasionally start at Fairplex and later do something important, such as 2011 Barretts Debutante winner Willa B Awesome, who later won a Grade 1. But the 13-day meet is mostly racing and wagering for the sheer fun of it.

But make no mistake – live racing at Fairplex is big business. While Barretts Sales Company adjacent to the track is among the industry’s auction leaders, wagering handle at the Fairplex meet also ranks high.

Fairplex last year handled more than $62.7 million, a daily average of more than $4.8 million.

Three stakes offer $100,000 purses – the Barretts Debutante on Sept. 15, Barretts Juvenile on Sept. 16, and $100,000 Ralph M. Hinds on closing day, Sept. 23. Nine other stakes offer $50,000 purses, including the Beverly J. Lewis for 3-year-old fillies Friday.

Martin Pedroza, the all-time winning Fairplex jockey (686 wins) and meet leader 13 straight seasons, rides favorite My Selection for trainer Bob Baffert in the 6 1/2-furlong race. Texas-based Dallas Keen will continue to race in California and actively participate at the meet. He entered Don’tgetmadalexis in the Lewis.

Doug O’Neill has led or shared the Fairplex training title eight times the past 10 years. While he serves the remainder of a medication suspension, assistant Leandro Mora runs the stable. Mora entered runners in seven of the nine Thoroughbred races Friday, including Lewis starter River Kiss.

The pick five, a 14 percent takeout bet that is the least expensive wager in California racing, will pay to five-win tickets only. The 4-for-5 consolation offered last year was eliminated. The pick five is on races 3-7.

The expectations of increased field size bodes well for bettors, and if field size drives handle, the final race each of three Fridays will be fun. Dubbed the Friday Finale, the maiden-claiming purse of the 1 1/8-mile race corresponds to field size.

The purse of the $25,000 maiden claimer will increase $10,000 to $28,000 based on the condition-book clause: “with 10 or more starters.” It was the idea of Lloyd, who wears the hat of general manger but remains a horseplayer at heart.

“I love that old-time last-race get-out race,” Lloyd said. “That’s what we look for – a chance to score and come back for more.”