09/03/2008 12:00AM

Fairplex tries to build momentum for future


POMONA, Calif. - The transformation of Fairplex Park from junior racetrack to major-league facility will not begin for at least a year and not before takeout-raising legislation is passed to fund a $75 million expansion project.

But with its 70th season of racing to start Friday, Fairplex Park already is acting like a track with objectives beyond the 16-day Los Angeles County Fair meet, sandwiched between the end of Del Mar and the start of the fall Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita.

The trend toward big days led Fairplex to reconfigure its program by scheduling stakes doubleheaders Saturday and Sunday opening weekend (Sept. 6-7) and the final Saturday (Sept. 20). On closing Sunday (Sept. 21), four stakes will be run, including the $125,000 Ralph M. Hinds for older horses and the $100,000 Las Madrinas for fillies and mares.

"We wanted to create that big, close-out, bang weekend," Fairplex equine manager Paul Ryneveld said. He hopes the four stakes on what is billed as California Classics Day generate national interest on an otherwise quiet Sunday. "We're going to be one of the most interesting race cards out there Sept. 21."

Fairplex is hardly a secret. Average daily handle topped $6.8 million last year, and racing officials are confident that tinkering with tradition will not reduce 2008 handle. The track previously ran at least one stakes daily; this year there are no stakes on Mondays or Thursdays. The track runs six days a week, with Tuesdays dark.

"The nuts-and-bolts days, the Mondays and Thursdays, those stakes didn't move the needle anyway," said Mike Seder, L.A. County Fair vice president and chief financial officer. "Now we'll put [the stakes] together and see what happens."

What happened already is Fairplex has gained momentum while positioning to become a major player on the Southern California circuit as Hollywood Park nears closing. Bay Meadows Land Co., which owns Hollywood, has not committed to racing at Hollywood beyond 2009. But hurdles still remain for Fairplex.

Legislation that would have raised California's exotic-wager takeout rates and ultimately provided funding for a Fairplex expansion died in committee in August. Officials believe a second attempt this winter will succeed. The bill could reach the governor's desk in spring 2009. If signed, Fairplex could issue bonds to finance a complete makeover.

Plans call for the five-furlong dirt oval at Fairplex to be expanded to 7 1/2 furlongs and replaced with a synthetic surface; construction of a seven-furlong turf course; and an infield training track at 4 1/2 furlongs. The project would include demolition of old barns and racing offices, and construction of new barns. Barring setbacks, the project could begin immediately after the 2009 Los Angeles County Fair meet ends in September. The project could be completed in nine months.

Renovation of the grandstand is not included in the $75 million proposal. Ryneveld, the equine manager at Fairplex for less than two years, said the estimated cost of a grandstand renovation exceeds $25 million. It would only happen if the California Horse Racing Board granted additional racing dates to Fairplex.

"If the dates came, we would do some drastic improvements to the facility," Ryneveld said. "It works fine for a 16-day fair, but it would not work for absorbing part of the Southern California circuit."

While long-term plans move slowly, Fairplex on Friday begins the only remaining Southern California Thoroughbred meet conducted on a dirt surface. And racing secretary Richard Wheeler faces a challenge, because Fairplex overlaps with the Stockton meet in Northern California. Stockton and Fairplex compete for similar horses.

"It's going to affect some of the cheaper horses and keep some trainers away," Wheeler said. "It's going to hurt a little bit."

Wheeler said that if necessary, he would card more half-mile Thoroughbred races in order to fill cards, but added "I don't like to do that."

Due to the Sept. 3-14 meet at Stockton, there will be no mule racing at Fairplex during the first part of the meet. Some consider that a positive development, but Wheeler said mules will race at Fairplex the final week. Quarter Horse races will be run when possible.

But the biggest ontrack draw remains Thoroughbred horses and riders. All-time leading Fairplex jockey Martin Pedroza has led the standings nine consecutive years; Tyler Baze will keep the pressure on Pedroza. David Flores will ride selected races, and Joel Rosario is expected to ride closing week.

The opening-day stakes race, formerly called the $65,000 Derby Trial, has been renamed the Jim Kostoff Stakes. Kostoff was chairman of the board at the fair for 18 years. The 1 1/16-mile Kostoff drew eight 3-year-olds and goes as race 12 on the 13-race card.

Pedroza rides likely favorite Trevor's Clever, upset winner of the $76,000 Alydar Stakes at Hollywood in May before he finished fifth against older in the $150,000 Cougar II at Del Mar. Ted H. West trains Trevor's Clever; his father Ted West assists.

The senior West said that Friday's race is a prep for the $100,000 Pomona Derby on Sept. 20.

Other starters include the Jeff Mullins-trained stakes winner Yes It's a Cat, Wink at the Girls, National Holiday, Rivergrade Boy, and Pistol Pete Afleet. Doug O'Neill, who has led or tied for the training title five of the last six meets, entered Harlene and Yankee Visionary.