If the published reports about the transfer of future racing dates from Fairplex Park to Hollywood Park are true, I promise not to shed any tears. But closing the curtain on racing at the Los Angeles County Fair would stir up some memories of a not-so-distant past when the Pomona bullring was a source of great entertainment and a diversion from the serious side of our sport.
During my first year living in Southern California in 1979, I experienced much of the best racing had to offer at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, and Del Mar. Horses like Affirmed, Exceller, Bold 'n Determined, Balzac, It's in the Air, and Flying Paster. Riding legends like Laffit Pincay Jr., who won 420 races and set a single-season record, and Bill Shoemaker, still going strong at the age of 48. Hall of Fame trainers Laz Barrera and Charlie Whittingham were dominant players, but upstarts like claiming king Bobby Frankel were beginning to climb the ladder.
Then there was Pomona, the chummy little track where fans in the infield could lean against the rail and almost feel the breeze of the horses racing past them. Jockey Francisco "Paco" Mena was the king of the bullring back then, though Rudy Campas seemed unbeatable when he had a live mount that could lean hard to the left around the tight turns. Trainer Mel Stute always seemed to have the right horse for the right race at the right time.
Most horses didn't adapt from California's one-mile tracks to Pomona's half-mile oval. But bullring specialists like Barnstorm Shadow and Cool Frenchy were as predictable as the San Gabriel Valley heat, cornering like Ferraris while their foes ran like old jalopies on four wobbly tires. Watching them made the drive to the county fair--interminable, no matter where you started from--seem worthwhile.
California-bred P. Vik is another old favorite. The son of Petrone broke his maiden at Pomona in one of my first visits to the track. Four years and 47 starts later, P. Vik returned to the bullring for the first time since that win and, in what turned out to be his final start, won the only stakes race of his career, the C.B. Afflerbaugh, on Sept. 25, 1983. I wasn't at Pomona that day but had a pretty good excuse: It was my wedding day. In the event I ever forgot that important date, I knew the answer was as close as a copy of the American Racing Manual. I would never forget the C.B. Afflerbaugh or P. Vik.
Some of Pomona's unique charm was lost after the track was expanded in 1985 and renamed Fairplex Park the following year. Intertrack wagering in the Los Angeles area made the long drive to Pomona unnecessary for many fans, and like other tracks, the on-track atmosphere, as much as its business, suffered. But Fairplex's simulcast signal was strong, helping lift average daily handle to over $6 million in 1998, a record year.
But for all the fun and good times racing at Fairplex provided, the fair meeting left something of a black hole on the Southern California racing calendar, especially since the creation of the Breeders' Cup in 1984.
The month of September is a critical time for many horses prepping for the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, and horses in California are forced to look elsewhere for opportunities. As a result, some of the state's leading Breeders' Cup contenders ship to Kentucky, New York, Louisiana, or Illinois to prep for their biggest race of the year.
Moving the key September dates to Hollywood Park provides horsemen a chance to stay home and gives Southern California fans an opportunity to see the local stars in person, instead of watching them on a simulcast from 2,000 miles away. In theory, the transfer of dates makes sense, though another racing tradition will be lost.