09/17/2002 11:00PM

Of old barns and sharp turns


POMONA, Calif. - It is easy to get the wrong impression about Fairplex Park.

Entering the racing side of the property from White Avenue, the first structure of any consequence is the Barretts Sales pavilion, a handsome building in which horses have sold for hundreds of millions of dollars since 1989.

Behind the pavilion, arrayed among mature shade trees and grassy walking rings, there are nine large barns, made of thick wood and brick, with vaulted ceilings and fire-safe roofs topped by twin cupolas. Air circulates freely, even on the hottest afternoons. The tack rooms are generous. The bathrooms are clean.

It is a short walk from the back of the Barretts barns to the edge of the racetrack, where a viewing stand affords trainers a panoramic view of the course. The infield is landscaped in simple terms, comprised mainly of lush, green Bermuda grass, and the five-furlong track itself is a dark, loamy soil, appearing rich enough to grow almost anything at the drop of a seed.

It is only a quick step through the looking glass, however, to discover the other Fairplex Park. This is the old Pomona fair, with dilapidated barns worn raw by untold generations of Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, Arabians, and Appaloosas. The scene could be straight out of Great Barrington, Narragansett, or old Waterford Park.

Ted West has spent time in both Fairplex worlds. He was there in the mid-1960's representing his father, Harold West, and he has been there every day during the 2002 meet as assistant and advisor to his son, Ted H. West. In between, the 65-year-old West ran up the third-highest winning total in the history of the fair, behind only Mel Stute and Jerry Fanning.

"I first ran a horse here in 1965," West said Wednesday morning as he watched one of their runners gallop around the snug Fairplex oval. "I brought six horses from my dad's stable in Caliente - cheap claimers, mostly, who we thought could handle the track."

West's tales of 1960's racing sound as if they come from another century, which is technically true. For advanced therapeutic machinery, a trainer would reverse the air on a vacuum hose and stick it in a tub of water to create a whirlpool. The West stable at Caliente was the first to own an ice machine. Before that, young Ted drove into Tijuana each morning to buy blocks of ice, then wrapped them in burlap and smashed them with a hammer.

Pomona back then was only a half-mile around, requiring a horse to spend most of his time turning. The star of the West stable in 1965 was My Kim Kay, 6 years old and game enough to run about as often as the Ferris wheel. West won three races in 10 days with My Kim Kay, each one for a claiming price of $1,600 and a purse of $2,500.

"He ran out of pedigree at about seven furlongs," West recalled. "But at Pomona, he could run a mile and a sixteenth, because the jock would be taking hold of him every time he hit a turn.

"I ran him in front bandages, but he was sound. And he was finally claimed the third time he won. When the guy who claimed him unwrapped those bandages, he decided to double jump him to $2,500, passing on a $2,000 claimer. He finished second, which was too bad, because he should have won four at the meet."

Four wins during a 14-day meet would have put My Kim Kay in the Fairplex Park record books alongside Patsy O., who did it in 1936, and Hen Mallard, who did it in 1949. Today, such frequent activity would attract a PETA picket line. Horses barely run once a month, let alone four times a fortnight.

Times have changed. Through Wednesday, the West stable had run only one horse at the meet. But if things go right, the Wests will be represented on Saturday by the maiden filly Leniently in the $100,000 Barretts Debutante Stakes.

Leniently has raced only once, showing speed before backing up in a straight maiden race at Del Mar. A blazed-faced bay with a compact frame, she likes to drop her tongue at the approach of a visitor. The polite response is to give it a pull.

To be eligible for the Barretts Debutante (as well as the Barretts Juvenile on Sunday), a horse must have gone through the ring at one of the major Barretts sales. Leniently satisfied that requirement last May, when the Wests consigned her to the Barretts sale of 2-year-olds but took her home when her reserve of $135,000 was not attained. They had bought her from her breeders even before her half-brother Easy Grades took the Wests to the 2002 Kentucky Derby on the strength of his second to Came Home in the Santa Anita Derby.

"She's a lot more mellow than her brother," said Ted H. West. "She worked well here the other day, and worked well before the sale, so at least we know she likes the track.

"In a way, I kind of like training a horse we own. That way, when something goes wrong, you just end up talking to yourself."

Or answer to your father.