09/03/2014 11:13AM

Hovdey: Johnstons link to fair meet's past


First impressions are important, but last impressions linger. Years from now, little children will be regaled with tales of Tom Durkin’s swan song at Saratoga, of Zenyatta’s farewell parade at Santa Anita, of Hollywood Park’s final program last winter, when fans packed the stands for one last look at the historic track, then grabbed as many souvenirs as they could on the way out.

Fairplex Park was spared such sentimental excess. When the last race of the most recent meet was run on Sept. 22, 2013, there were no weepy embraces as the curtain fell, no wistful tours of the bandbox grandstand, no sighs of longing for bygone days, and certainly no emotional tributes for such all-time bull ring titans as Mel Stute, Jerry Fanning, David Flores, and Martin Pedroza. The meet simply ended, followed by a week’s worth of business at the adjacent Los Angeles County Fair, which for 75 years had hosted racing for several breeds in the hot suburban sprawl of the eastern San Gabriel Valley.

True, there had been rumors swirling for years that each season might be the last. But another September would come around again, and the Southern California racing colony would reconvene in Pomona – ferris wheel, swine pavilion, corn dogs, and all. It had its charms.

Then suddenly it was gone, with no more fanfare than the departure of an unwelcomed in-law. Fairplex officials and their Barretts Sales partners negotiated a deal, got a rubber stamp from the racing board, and presto! The September dates were shifted, ceded, sublet – whatever – to Los Alamitos Race Course in northern Orange County, 25 miles and two or three very busy freeways to the west.

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In an arrangement contracted for the next five years, Los Alamitos management will pay Fairplex-Barretts for the privilege of operating the dates, while the L.A. County Fair goes on its merry way without horse racing. Friday’s first of 11 programs is headed by the $75,000 E.B. Johnston Stakes for 3-year-olds bred in California, a holdover from the Fairplex meet, where last year the Johnston was offered to 3-year-old fillies for a purse of $50,000. It also celebrates the family whose horses were synonymous with success at the L.A. County Fair for more than half a century.

“We won our first stake there in 1958,” said Buddy Johnston, son of patriarch E.B. Johnston and proprietor of the family’s Old English Rancho breeding and racing operation that produced 2011 Eclipse Award winner Acclamation. “In the winner’s circle photo, my dad and I are dressed in coat and tie, and the girls look like they just came out of the Turf Club at Santa Anita. You could say it was different in those days.”

Johnston, 21 at the time, was referring to Titanium, a son of the Alibhai stallion Lodge Night, who was the first horse to pull off the Pomona Derby-Pomona Handicap double. After that, Old English Rancho pretty much ran the table at the L.A. County fair for the next couple of decades, winning the best stakes offered with runners like Impressive Style, More Megaton, Fleet Treat, Balcony’s Babe, and Imaginative – all of them good enough to win major events at Santa Anita, Hollywood, or Del Mar.

When it came to their mastery at the fair, however, Johnston credits his design of the Old English Rancho training track in nearby Ontario, which replicated Pomona’s half-mile layout.

“Jockeys would tell us that our horses were the only ones they had to grab with the right rein, they cornered so good,” Johnston said.

“The last horse my dad saw win was Journey Ahead, in the Gateway to Glory at Pomona,” Johnston added. “We got him to the winner’s circle that day. It’s the last picture I have of him.”

E.B. Johnston died in 1981, while Old English eventually was relocated to California’s Central Valley, just as the L.A. County racing dates now have found a new home at Los Alamitos. The pragmatic Johnston concedes it was time for a change.

“When Marje Everett ran Hollywood Park I urged her to buy Los Alamitos and develop it into a major Thoroughbred track,” Johnston said. “I’ve always thought racing in that area is very viable.”

Everett owned Los Alamitos briefly but never took the next step of converting a Quarter Horse track into a Thoroughbred emporium. Now, with the closure of Hollywood Park last December, Los Alamitos has been thrust into the Southern California mix of training and stabling, with a handful of racing dates spread across the calendar to justify the expense of an expanded track and new barns.

It remains to be seen if owners and trainers treat the Los Alamitos Fall Meet as if it’s nothing more than a glorified version of the county fair, or like a vital piece of connective tissue between the circuit’s major meets.

“Time will tell,” Johnston said. “Losing Hollywood Park hurt the industry something terrible. But I don’t see why it shouldn’t be a success at Los Alamitos. I’ve got one in the E.B. Johnston to support the race, a longshot named What a View. And if we don’t win, I’ll be there anyway to present the trophy.”