09/05/2006 11:00PM

Little track's big fields spell success


POMONA, Calif. - Mel Stute has been training winners at the Los Angeles County Fair since practically the beginning of time.

Back to when Fairplex Park was called simply "Pomona" and nobody really cared what happened there. "It used to be more fun than serious," Stute said.

Horseplayers and horsemen still have fun at the Fair, but the game has changed since the first pari-mutuel meet there in 1933. And while Stute, 79, has racked up 183 wins at Fairplex, the all-time leading trainer has noticed a shift.

"When the track was a half-mile, you came to have fun and nobody worried about pressure," Stute said. "Now, the pressure is on management, more than it used to be."

Fairplex begins its 16-day race meet Friday, and officials project handle to exceed last year's $7 million daily average. Yep, the pressure is a lot higher now. Fairplex is not just a quiet little meet squeezed between Del Mar summer and Oak Tree-at-Santa Anita fall.

"We've become more visible," Fairplex equine manager George Bradvica said, noting that Fairplex ranks 10th in North America in average daily handle. After last year's record handle of $113 million, Fairplex this year will aim for $117 million.

"Starters-per-race is the most important determinant of handle," Bradvica said. "Eight horses [the 2005 average] will get you everything on the menu." That includes trifectas, superfectas, daily doubles, rolling pick threes, a pick four, and a pick six. Maximum field size on the five-eighths mile track is 10; the Fairplex eight-horse average is near capacity.

"We've created field size that creates value for bettors," Bradvica said. The average pool in the pick four last year was more than $166,000; the median $1 payoff was $434. In the pick six, there were five carryovers that helped produce an average pick-six pool of more than $200,000.

Fairplex runs daily except Tuesday, through Sept. 25. The 12- or 13-race cards include two for Quarter Horses or mules, but the focus is Thoroughbreds. Their names will be familiar for handicappers who followed Del Mar.

The promising 2-year-old filly Garden of Stars, runaway debut winner Aug. 27, will run in a stakes, as will Real Good Deal Stakes winner Seven Nation Army. Gimme S'Mor will try to emulate Lava Man by winning the Derby Trial Stakes on Monday first off the claim by trainer Doug O'Neill. Lava Man won the 2004 Derby Trial first off the claim.

Horses that made their last start at Del Mar historically comprise about 40 percent of the Fairplex runners; last year, Del Mar starters won 53 percent of the Thoroughbred races. Horses making their second start of the short meet won 23 percent of the races. O'Neill won his fourth consecutive Fairplex training title last year; his chief rival at Fairplex will be Jeff Mullins. There will be others.

"The response has been good from the trainers from the major circuit," racing secretary Richard Wheeler said. "We'll have about 1,200 horses by the time everyone ships in."

Several outfits based in Arizona will have a Fairplex stable, including Bill Bainum, who has 30 stalls; Dan McFarlane, Molly Pearson, and Kory Owens.

Seventeen stakes will be run at Fairplex, starting with the $65,000 Foothill on Friday for 3-year-olds at 6 1/2 furlongs. A well-matched field entered the Foothill, led by Del Mar allowance winners Sailors Sunset and Ellwood and Jake.

Meanwhile, an evenly matched jockey colony will battle it out. Martin Pedroza, leading rider the past seven years, faces stiff competition. David Cohen will ride regularly for O'Neill; former Fairplex kingpin David Flores resumed riding regularly at the Fair last year for the first time since 1998; Michael Baze and Clinton Potts will try to build on Del Mar momentum; Tyler Baze and Aaron Gryder also will ride.

The stakes schedule is anchored by three races closing weekend - the $100,000 Las Madrinas Handicap for fillies and mares Sept. 22; the $100,000 Pomona Derby for 3-year-olds Sept. 23; and the $125,000 Ralph M. Hinds Pomona Invitational Handicap Sept. 24.

In the two richest stakes for 2-year-olds - the $130,000-estimated Barretts Debutante on Sept. 16 and $130,000 Barretts Juvenile on Sept. 17 - Stute, the track's all-time leading trainer will try to add to his all-time leading stakes total.

Stute has won 43 stakes at Fairplex, but has just 10 horses in training. Which are his best?

"I hope it's a 2-year-old colt Pawnee, or a 2-year-old filly Quick Little Miss," he said. "Hopefully they'll run in the Barretts races. This track gives the little guy a chance, guys like myself."

At a glance

RACING SCHEDULE: 16 days; Friday through Sept. 25. Dark Tuesdays.

POST TIME: 1 p.m. Pacific, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays; noon Fridays through Sundays.

ADMISSIONS: General: $15 weekends, $10 weekdays; seniors: $12 weekends, $8 weekdays, $5 Wednesdays; children, ages 6-12, $8 weekends, $5 weekdays. Racetrack box seats, $3. PARKING: general, $8; preferred, $10.

LOCATION: North of Interstate-10, 1101 W. McKinley Ave, Pomona.

PHONE: (909) 623-3111.

INTERNET: www.lacountyfair.com

2006 stakes schedule

Fri.,Sept. 8FOOTHILL STAKES3YO6 1/2 furlongs$65,000
Sat.,Sept. 9PHIL D. SHEPHERD STAKES3YO & Up1 1/16 miles65,000
Sun.,Sept. 10E. B. JOHNSTON STAKESF&M, 3YO & Up1 1/16 miles65,000
Mon.,Sept. 11DERBY TRIAL STAKES3YO1 1/16 miles65,000
Wed.,Sept. 13BEAU BRUMMEL STAKES 2YO6 1/2 furlongs65,000
Thur.,Sept. 14BUSTLES AND BOWS STAKES2YO F6 1/2 furlongs65,000
Fri.,Sept. 15PIO PICO STAKESF&M, 3YO & Up*6 1/2 furlongs65,000
Sat.,Sept. 16BARRETTS DEBUTANTE2YO F6 1/2 furlongs130,000
Sun.,Sept. 17BARRETTS JUVENILE2YO6 1/2 furlongs130,000
Mon.,Sept. 18CTBA MARIAN STAKES3YO F*1 1/16 miles65,000
Wed.,Sept. 20BLACK SWAN STAKES2YO F1 1/16 miles65,000
Thur.,Sept. 21GATEWAY TO GLORY STAKES2YO1 1/16 miles65,000
Fri.,Sept. 22LAS MADRINAS HANDICAPF&M, 3YO & Up1 1/16 miles100,000
Sat.,Sept. 23POMONA DERBY3YO1 1/8 miles100,000
Sun.,Sept. 24RALPH M. HINDS POMONA INVTL. HCP.3YO & Up1 1/8 miles125,000
Sun.,Sept. 24GOVERNOR'S CUP3YO & Up6 1/2 furlongs65,000
Mon.,Sept. 25BANGLES AND BEADS STAKESF&M, 3YO & Up6 1/2 furlongs65,000