09/22/2005 12:00AM

Fanning was Prince of Pomona

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POMONA, Calif. - They save the big ones for last at the L.A. County Fair, with the $100,000 Pomona Derby running for the 51st time on Saturday and then on Sunday the $100,000 Ralph M. Hinds Pomona Invitational Handicap, a race that dates back to 1934.

Neither race figures to light up the national media, but the money spends, and where else can an owner celebrate a stakes win with a cocktail at the Toad in the Hole or feast at the Top of the Park, followed by a postprandial stroll down the midway - "Hey, mister! Take a chance. Win a stuffed duck for the little lady" - and a romantic turn on La Grande Wheel? For afters, there is always a Mad Hatter Funnel Cake or Australian Battered Potatoes. Mmmmm, battered potatoes.

Jeff Mullins has won the last two Pomona Derbies, with Semi Lost and Excess Summer, while Mike Mitchell is on a two-win roll in the Hinds with Chinkapin and Hotel Hall. Mullins does not have a runner in the derby this year, but Mitchell has two invited to run in the Hinds.

Both of those trainers have a ways to go, though, before they're within hailing distance of Jerry Fanning's Fairplex Park numbers. Fanning, who turns 73 in November, has won 141 races at the fair, second only to Mel Stute's 182 and tied with Ted West. Fourth-place Hector Palma is a long way back at 80.

Among Fanning's 141 wins are two runnings of the Pomona Derby and a record six versions of the Hinds, going back to the days when it was simply known as the Pomona Handicap and the late Ralph Hinds was running the show. Heck, Woody Stephens only won five Belmonts.

It has been 20 years since the last of Fanning's Hinds Handicap winners, when Artichoke beat Last Command in 1985 and owner Tom Gentry paraded around the Pomona grandstand passing out buttons that read, "Artichoke - You Gotta Have Heart."

Fanning has a soft spot for all his Pomona Handicap winners, including two he owned in partnership, Mister Dan (1977) and Stiff Diamond (1981). None of them, though, is dearer to his horseman's heart than the leggy filly named Our First Delight, who beat males in the 1976 running of the Pomona Handicap, when the track was still a classic half-mile bullring.

"I don't think anybody could have beaten her, especially on a half-miler," Fanning said. "She ran faster on the old half-mile track than they do today on the five-eighths."

In addition to the Pomona Handicap, Our First Delight won the CTBA Marian Stakes and the Las Madrinas Handicap at the fair. A daughter of First Balcony, Our First Delight was owned by Meryl Tanz and bred by E.B. Johnston, a member of the Fairplex Racing Hall of Fame.

Fanning rates Our First Delight and the French horse Drouilly as the two best bullringers he has ever trained. Drouilly is one of eight horses to win the Hinds Pomona Handicap back-to-back, but he is the only one to turn the trick while negotiating two of the deepest, muddiest tracks Southern California has ever seen. His times for the nine furlongs could have been clocked with a sun dial - 2:03 flat in 1982 and 2:00.60 in 1983.

"The last time he ran over there, he lost two shoes, and another shoe was turned almost straight down," Fanning said. "It looked like a big sticker.

"He was a big, strong horse, and a good grass horse, too, only he would always want to run off," the trainer went on. "A lot of people didn't know it at the time, but he had broken a coffin bone in both front feet at one time or another. Because of that, I think maybe the mud was a little easier on him."

In recent years, Fanning has been light on horses like Drouilly and Our First Delight, although he did win the Beau Brummel Stakes at Fairplex in 2004 with a promising colt named Forever Foxy. In his subsequent start, Forever Foxy was well beaten by Roman Ruler in the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, after which Fanning figured he would tiptoe over to Phoenix for the Arizona Juvenile Stakes, run last Dec. 26.

"I thought it would be an easy spot," Fanning said. "Then that monster showed up."

The monster's name was Lost in the Fog. Forever Foxy gave fruitless pursuit and emerged from the race with a chipped ankle. He is currently on the comeback trail.

Fanning's personal history is filled with the names of good horses who could win anywhere, including Hollywood Gold Cup winner Desert Wine, Santa Anita Derby winner Terlago, Spinster Stakes winner Top Corsage, Vanity Handicap winner A Kiss for Luck, and Little Reb, who beat Affirmed in the 1979 Malibu Stakes. Other major Fanning stakes winners include Reb's Golden Ale, Kings Island, Croeso, Hyperborean, Pleasant Variety, and Present Value, and he has trained horsemen as well, including past assistants Jerry Hollendorfer and Jack Carava.

"I've got 14 horses now, and that's all I really want," Fanning said. "Although it would be nice if they were 14 horses who could really run."