09/30/2002 12:00AM

Meet ends on strong note


POMONA, Calif. - Weekend horseplayers wagered $17 million on Fairplex Park races Saturday and Sunday, providing a fitting conclusion to the once-uncertain future of the Los Angeles County Fair race meet.

The 17-day fair meet, which at one point last year appeared headed for a change in venue to either Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, instead will remain at Fairplex. How long? That is up to the California racing industry, according to Jim Henwood, president and chief executive officer of the L.A. County Fair.

"We'd like to see the race meet be here forever," Henwood said between races Sunday. "I'm hopeful that we can hold another race meet here next year."

Although the Fairplex meet ended Sunday with a 5.5 percent overall handle decline, Henwood was pleased business rebounded after a disastrous opening weekend, which saw a 20 percent drop in handle. "Fortunately, our business was restored, and we're going to be up 1 1/2 percent over the last 14 days," Henwood said.

Overall, bettors wagered $98.4 million over the 17-day meet, an average daily handle of nearly $5.8 million. Average daily handle in 2001 was more than $6.1 million. The positive rebound during the latter part of the meet was helped in part by pick six carryovers the last two days of the meet. While fair officials attribute some of the handle decline to abnormal wagering patterns related to Sept. 11, the fair still faces critical issues related to the continuance of racing at Fairplex.

The fair will seek reinstatement to be fully funded as a year-round training facility. Fairplex typically receives $2.2 million in funding to remain open as a year-round training facility, but had its budget slashed by $700,000 when San Luis Rey Downs was awarded funding as a training facility. The cutback forced Fairplex to close for three months during the year. Henwood sees the future of racing at Fairplex at least partly contingent on the track remaining open as a year-round training facility.

"San Luis Rey might be a great training facility, but that doesn't mean the Los Angeles County Fair needs to lose what it has done traditionally in serving this industry as a training facility," Henwood said. San Luis Rey, he noted, "is not a racing association."

Henwood said he has "every confidence" that the California Horse Racing Board will restore the fair's training funding.

Henwood hopes to bolster the Fairplex racing program with the addition of Tom Robbins, Del Mar's racing secretary, as a consultant to Fairplex. Robbins and racing secretary Richard Wheeler will be charged with attracting more top stables to Fairplex for the 2003 meet.

Quality at the current meet was down from past years. According to Wheeler, fewer stables participated in the program and Wheeler was forced to offer a plethora of four-furlong Thoroughbred races in order to fill the cards. Horseplayers typically find four-furlong races unappealing betting contests. The high cost of workers' compensation insurance in California was one reason fewer stables shipped to California, a situation fair officials hope has been resolved by recent legislation.

On the track, Martin Pedroza rode 27 winners to lead the meet for the fourth straight year. Pedroza is the all-time riding leader at Fairplex with 349 wins. Jockey Tyler Baze finished second with 21 wins. Trainer Doug O'Neill started nine winners to lead a race meet for the first time in his career.

There was one winning ticket in the pick six on Sunday, which paid $416,435.20. The ticket was sold through a hub in Maine.