09/08/2009 11:00PM

For three weeks, it's all dirt


POMONA, Calif. - Fairplex Park is not untouched by economic challenges that affect racing in Southern California and everywhere. Purses are down, dates are trimmed, and both horsemen and track operators are cutting costs.

Yet some traditions remain at the Los Angeles County Fair, despite a reduced stakes schedule, fewer mixed-breed races, and one less day of racing. While the 15-day meet that begins Thursday is the shortest since 1980, Fairplex continues to run races on dirt, the only conventional surface remaining on the local Thoroughbred circuit.

The Fairplex meet is sandwiched between Del Mar, which ended Wednesday, and the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita that begins Sept. 30. And over next three weeks on the five-furlong Fairplex track, where the grandstand is on top of the action, droppers from Del Mar will dominate. So is Fairplex a true "fair meet" or merely a lower-class version of the year-round Southern California circuit?

"It's definitely a fair meet," new racing secretary Tom Knust said. "We write a lot of maiden races, and a lot of cheaper races that give guys a chance to drop. Horsemen here want to run. They only have a select time [15 days] to run, so they need to make as much money as they can in a short time."

Low-level races that make up the Fairplex program include $5,000 claimers, $5,000 restricted (nonwinners of two) claimers, $20,000 maiden-claimers, and a stakes program generally filled by allowance horses.

Knust, a former racing secretary at Santa Anita and Del Mar, has replaced Dick Wheeler at Fairplex and faced an immediate challenge coping with stakes reductions. Three fewer stakes (14) are offered; the minimum stakes purse dropped $15,000 to $50,000; purses for the Pomona Derby and Las Madrinas Handicap on Sept. 26 were cut from $100,000 to $75,000; the Ralph M. Hinds Pomona Handicap on Sept. 28 remains $125,000.

Another shift away from tradition is mixed-breed (Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and mules) racing will not be a key component. Fairplex historically averaged two mixed races daily; Knust said plans call for only four Quarter Horse races and eight mule races at the meet.

One addition to the stakes calendar is the $50,000 Beverly J. Lewis, a 6 1/2-half furlong sprint for 3-year-old fillies that anchors the nine-race opening-day card. "[Beverly Lewis] and her husband [Robert Lewis] were big supporters of Fairplex," Knust said. "It's nice to name a race after someone still living."

Martin Pedroza, the all-time leading rider at Fairplex Park, will be honored Sunday when he is inducted into the Fairplex Park Hall of Fame. Pedroza is named on six program favorites on the nine-race Thursday card, but jockey Pedro Arambula is expected to be on the favorite in the $50,000 Beverly Lewis.

Arambula rides Dancing Erin, a front-running winner of a California-bred allowance sprint Aug. 21 at Del Mar. Gary Sherlock trains Dancing Erin, who has won 2 of 11, but faces a distance challenge Thursday at 6 1/2 furlongs.

"Naturally we would prefer it be six furlongs," Sherlock admits. "But it's a good spot to get black type, and if you don't get in her way I think she'll be tough in there."

Pedroza rides Fastongrass, who drops from the productive San Clemente Handicap at Del Mar. Carlsbad and Internallyflawless won graded stakes after finishing off the board in the San Clemente. Julio Canani trains 3-for-9 Fastongrass, ninth in the San Clemente.

A potential Beverly Lewis upsetter is Pretty Katherine, whose trainer Jerry Hollendorfer blames himself for sketchy form.

"I haven't done a very good job with her," he said. "I had her in Canada and in New York, and she never had a chance to get settled."

Pretty Katherine removes the cheater blinkers she wore in her return, and can improve second start back under Martin Garcia. Hollendorfer is coming off the best Del Mar meet of his career, and though not usually an active participant at Fairplex, that could change.

"We're going to run a few horses that we think we have spots for," Hollendorfer said.

Bettors looking for a "sure thing" on opening day may focus on race-6 favorite Word Association. The 2-year-old filly finished third last time in a productive Del Mar maiden race and is likely to hover at about even money in the six-furlong sprint for statebred maiden 2-year-olds. Pedroza rides for trainer Cliff Sise.