05/23/2002 11:00PM

Hee Haw brouhaha serious business


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - My oh my. Is that a prize-winning American Yorkshire hog tethered to the statue of George Woolf? Are those really Welsh Mountain Badger Faced sheep grazing in the far corner of the infield? And look, beneath the sculpted olive trees in the paddock gardens, can that be a pen full of Tennessee Fainting goats?

Afraid so, folks. Get ready for the Santa Anita Fair. If the California Racing Board rubber stamps the latest request from Magna Entertainment, the jewel of California racing will be magically transformed into Old MacDonald's Farm for

17 days in September, complete with mixed breed racing that will include Arabians, Quarter Horses, and Appaloosas.

Yes, those are spotted ponies parading in the shadow of the Seabiscuit bronze. And the sound you hear beneath your feet is Dr. Charles H. Strub spinning violently in his grave.

"We are thrilled to offer our venue as a site for the L.A. County Fair race meet," said Jack Liebau, president of California operations for Magna.

Somebody get that man a shovel.

There is no question that the dates currently occupied by the Los Angeles County Fair at Fairplex Park could better serve the California racing industry if they were used for major racing. The fair provides entertaining sport and a healthy chunk of handle, but those dates are choice. As it stands now, good weather is squandered, good horses ship east, and potential preps for the Breeders' Cup are lost during three key weekends.

But to simply relocate the fair dates - and all that they mandate - to a major track such as Santa Anita is a terrible idea. No amount of bottom-line penciling will be able to erase the very real consequences. If Santa Anita opens for county fair racing on Sept. 13 and runs every day through Sept. 29, this is what will happen:

* The final eight days of the Del Mar meet, ending Sept. 11, will be a disaster. With the lure of inflated fair purses, horsemen will flee Del Mar's stable area and head for home in L.A. once Labor Day is in the books. The racing will suffer. Handle will drop. The state of California will lose money.

* The Oak Tree meeting that begins on Oct. 2 will be rendered anti-climactic. A 17-day lead-in will drain its customer base. Attendance and handle, formerly concentrated during Oak Tree's six weeks, will be diluted. Revenues will drop. Oak Tree's mission of charitable contributions and the funding of equine research will take a serious hit. The state of California will lose money.

* Grass racing, a staple of the warm and sunny Oak Tree season, will be compromised. A lead-in meet of 17 days - figure two turf races a day - could leave the course in poor shape by late October. Fields would shrink. Handle would drop. The state of California would lose money.

Apparently, this is happening because the people who run the Los Angeles County Fair no longer want to be in the horse racing business. Fine. It's been fun, more than 60 years of history and plenty of laughs.

But if that is the case, they should surrender any claim to the September dates. This could be an opportunity to revitalize the California racing calendar. Those 17 days should be distributed among the major racetracks on the Southern California circuit in an equitable manner. If the fair needs some short-term compensation, that can be arranged.

Magna has stepped up as the facilitator of this bad behavior, and the racing board seems intent upon going along for the ride. But nothing Magna has done in California so far would warrant such a free pass.

Promises of a renovated stable area and entertainment center at Santa Anita were apparently nothing but fairy tales. Magna's Xpressbet account wagering company was off to a sputtering, disorganized start and is now mired in the doldrums with inferior product. The sport in northern California - a Magna domain - is an aesthetic wreck. Look closely at the televised stretch runs of the races from Bay Meadows. You will see laundry hanging from the barns in the infield.

If nothing else, however, Magna can draw upon precedent. In the late 1970's, Los Alamitos contracted with the Orange County Fair to run races during the dozen fair dates. It took months of bitter wrangling with the racing board and the office of the attorney general, but Los Alamitos finally got the dates.

Part of the deal was that Los Alamitos at least disguise itself as a fair. As a result, racetrack patrons were greeted by a mini-midway and a collection of penned farm animals as they made their way to the entrance of the grandstand.

"We felt it best that we at least make the effort to show that we were interested in promoting agriculture in the state of California," said Brad McKinzie, head of the Los Alamitos marketing at the time.

"We had a cow," McKinzie recalled. "We had a goat. And I believe we had a demonstration on how to make butter. If I look in our storage area, tell the guys at Santa Anita I think we still have the butter churn."