06/27/2005 12:00AM

Quantity for quality

Photos by Frank
The Alameda County Fair opens Wednesday for 11 days of racing.

PLEASANTON, Calif. - The Alameda County Fair has taken a new approach to racing this year.

Considered one of the two best stops on the annual summer circuit, along with Santa Rosa, Pleasanton has lowered its sights this year, carding more cheaper races than in the past.

Last year, two-thirds of the Thoroughbred races at Pleasanton were for a $12,500 claiming tag or less. This year, it's nearly three-quarters of the races in the condition book.

Last year the Alameda County Fair ran seven allowance races. This year there are only four scheduled. Add in the high-end starter allowance races, and the decline is from 10 to six.

Rick Pickering, Alameda County Fair CEO and the director of racing, said the reason for the change in direction is to increase field size.

"When we go to the California Horse Racing Board, they ask what we are going to do to increase field size," Pickering said. "In the last two years, we have not had the field size we like. As a business entity, we need larger fields. We've found a number of horsemen move from Stockton to Vallejo, and skip Pleasanton because they felt they couldn't compete with the Bay Meadows and Golden Gate horsemen."

Another factor in the decision was what Pickering calls "significant overpayments" to horsemen of between $200,000 to $220,000 the past two years.

"We're trying not to repeat it," he said of the overpayments.

Some horsemen think the fair made the wrong move. One trainer, who did not want to be named, said that fewer allowance races may result in the better horses racing elsewhere.

"We have a lot of nice horses here now," said the trainer. "The problem is that there are no second-level allowance races written in the book, so you may have to take your horse somewhere else to run during the summer. And a lot of horses that leave here never come back."

Bob Moreno, the new racing secretary, said that he would try to offer some races for better horses that aren't listed in the condition book.

Demesme keeps his head high

Despite going winless at Stockton, jockey Elliott Demesme said, "I believe I'll have a good year this summer."

Demesme doesn't get many mounts and he has had only six victories from 102 starts. But those six victories came at Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, and if you bet on every horse Demesme has ridden this year, you'd have a tidy 48 percent profit.

Demesme hopes that trainers at Pleasanton notice that he has had success with longshots and give him a chance with better horses.

"People usually see me ride bad stock," he said. "Bringing in those longshots helps a lot. It gets more trainers to notice, and I'm riding mornings for major trainers. This year I'm working harder to get on good horses. I have a good agent. I'm hustling and getting on at least seven every day and usually 12.

"I have some trainers who are going to give me a shot in the afternoon. You've got to have stock underneath you. That's what makes jockeys, trainers, and owners - good horses. Good horses make you want to get up in the morning."

Demesme grew up in Compton in the Los Angeles area where, he said, "I was taught to ride anything with hair on it, anything with four legs - donkeys, bulls, pigs."

Demesme hopes to use his racetrack experience with one of his off-track passions. He is active in a program in Compton called "Q Up," which teaches youngsters to ride. He hopes to generate enough interest in the program to be able to get funding to start a similar program in Oakland.

The program introduces kids to horses and other animals and has helped some youngsters develop skills in rodeo events and Western-style riding. One of the program's participants has developed into a good enough bull rider to consider joining the professional rodeo circuit.

"It's important for kids to learn about the horses," Demesme said. "They learn to love themselves and other living things.

"It helps me, too. I go there to relax, and to see the looks on the kids' faces is rewarding."

* Track announcer John McGary will host daily seminars at Pleasanton in the Sports Bar area just outside the grandstand. The seminars will include a variety of guests from the racing industry and many giveaways. Jockey Chad Schvaneveldt will be Wednesday's opening-day guest. The seminars begin at 11 a.m. each day.

At a glance: Pleasanton

RACING SCHEDULE: 11 days - June 29-July 10; dark July 5

POST TIME: 12:15 p.m.

HIGHLIGHTS: July 2, $40,000-added Juan Gonzalez Memorial Stakes; July 3, $50,000-added Everett Nevin Alameda County Futurity; July 4, $50,000 Alameda County Fillies and Mares Handicap; July 9, $50,000 Sam J. Whiting Memorial Handicap; July 10, $50,000 Alamedan Handicap.

ADMISSIONS: Free with fair admission. Adults (13 and over) $9, Seniors $7 (free on Wednesdays)

PARKING: $8 general; $13 Western Pacific lot

LOCATION: 4501 Pleasanton Ave., Pleasanton, CA.

SIMULCASTING: Daily except Tuesday.

PHONE: (925) 426-7600

INTERNET: www.alamedacountyfair.com