09/07/2004 11:00PM

Meet gets under way with Foothill

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POMONA, Calif. - There is no lack of wagering opportunities at the Los Angeles County Fair race meet, which begins its 17-day run Friday on the five-furlong track at Fairplex Park. Here, the focus is on old-fashioned gambling and hard-earned purse money. No doubt, it is a unique place to race.

Friday's 12-race card starts with something you just don't see at Del Mar or Santa Anita - mules. The 350-yard mule sprint is the first indication that the racing is just a little different at Fairplex than it is at Del Mar, whose meet ended Wednesday, or the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meet, which starts Sept. 29.

But the racing action still centers on the age-old question - which horse is fastest? Trainer John Sadler starts front-runner Stone Rain in the $60,000 Foothill Stakes, a 6 1/2-furlong race for 3-year-olds in which Stone Rain and jockey Kerwin John must hold off Pt's Grey Eagle.

"If he's the horse to beat, then I'm in good shape," Sadler said.

Six other horses are entered: Don'tsellmeshort, a Fairplex stakes winner last year; closer Last Minute Detail; front-runners Trish's Diamond, Rockin the Ship, and Razen Hazen; and Pioneerman.

All-time Fairplex leading rider Martin Pedroza was offered Pt's Grey Eagle and Stone Rain, and his agent Richie Silverstein chose Pt's Grey Eagle.

Pt's Grey Eagle, trained by Craig Dollase, won a first-condition allowance by daylight Aug. 22, earning a 104 Beyer Figure. Stone Rain finished second in a two-other-than allowance Aug. 21, earning a 96 Beyer. But Stone Rain went faster early, tiring after a 44.25-second half-mile.

"Maybe the half got him," Sadler said of Stone Rain.

That race was the first for Stone Rain since knee surgery and an eight-month layoff. With only three weeks between starts, Stone Rain is a candidate to bounce.

"That was my concern, too," Sadler said. "It looks like he snapped out of that race well."

If the Foothill really is a two-horse contest, bettors can simply side with the higher odds. There won't be many races that bettors will sit out. Last year, bettors wagered more than $109 million, an average daily handle of more than $6.4 million.

Horsemen will race for more than $4 million in purses during the meet. First post weekdays is 12:30; first post weekends is noon. The highlights include three $100,000 stakes the final three days, Sept. 24-26: the Las Madrinas Handicap for fillies and mares; Pomona Derby for 3-year-olds; and Ralph M. Hinds Pomona Invitational Handicap on closing day.