On a typically hot and smoggy Tuesday afternoon in Pomona, Calif., the air seems extra pungent due to smoke from wildfires in the San Dimas Canyon northwest of Fairplex Park. About 200 people recline in the old racetrack grandstand that has been part of the Los Angeles County Fair since 1933. Another 100 or so mill about on the asphalt apron between the grandstand and the track railing.
Michael Seder, vice president of finance for the Los Angeles County Fair, can't help but wonder what happened to all the passionate supporters of Fairplex racing, the people who made their voices heard through public testimony and letter-writing when the California Horse Racing Board was considering a request to transfer the Fairplex meet to Santa Anita Park.
"Frankly, we were a little surprised at the public outpouring," Seder said as the meet wound down to its Sept. 29 conclusion. "Everything we had been hearing from the industry was that they wanted a major racing venue" in place of the fair meet, including a full-sized track and a turf course that could provide Breeders' Cup prep races.
"But considering the passion people expressed for keeping the meet here, you would have thought there would have been a big rallying of support at the track," Seder said. "But that hasn't happened. We are down across the board."
Total pari-mutuel handle, off 20% in the opening week of the season and down even more (22%) on track, has bounced back to a certain extent. Fairplex racing manager George Bradvica said that going into the final week of the meet, handle was off 9%, even with $200,000 a day coming in for the first time through account wagering.
The weekend of Sept. 21, more than 12,000 people crowded into the place each day for the important Barretts' 2-year-old stakes each worth $100,000. They were some of the 140,000 to attend the fair on those days.
This Tuesday was not one of those days. Short fields and cheap claiming races command the bill. It's the sort of afternoon where a single obnoxious voice from the stands can dominate all others, and does.
Between the third and fourth race, there's a lovely sound coming from the apron in front of the grandstand. A soprano practices her trills. "La, la, la, la la, la, la," she warbles as she moves up the scale. The crowd listens and gives her an appreciative hand. A moment later, the tinny sound of country music again blares over the loudspeaker.
There are no lines to fight. Bettors can amble over to the paddock near the top of the stretch, check out the horses as they are prepared to go to the track, and walk 20 yards to a betting window. There's little reason to hurry.
"People really enjoy this," Bradvica said. "It is so relaxed. It brings them so close to the races. It's a welcome change from Hollywood Park, Santa Anita, and Del Mar. It can mean a break for a lot of racing people. For others, it's a chance they don't really have during the rest of the circuit to make some money."
Seder said there would be another meeting with the CHRB, perhaps this winter, on the future of racing at Fairplex. For now, though, racing seems in place for the time being. Seder and Bradvica offer plenty of reasons for optimism.
Since the CHRB summer hearings, the fair has bought Barretts, the leading horse auction company in the state, which is housed on the Fairplex grounds. It has just hired longtime Southern California racing official Tom Robbins, currently vice president of racing at Del Mar, as a consultant. Robbins will work with Dick Wheeler, Fairplex's racing secretary, on upgrading the product.
"There was a passionate appeal from trainers and owners before the CHRB to keep racing here," Bradvica said, "and that's what we intend to do, as long as the industry supports us. (Robbins) is going to lend us credibility. We want to give people the feeling we're taking this seriously. In the big picture, adding Tom to our team can only help us."
An immediate goal for Fairplex is to restore year-round funding for its training facility. A cut of about $700,000 in vanning and stabling funds by Southern California Off-Track Wagering forced Fairplex to close down the training facility for about three months during the past year.
It reopened only three weeks before the meet began Sept. 13. The upheaval is being blamed in part for a few hundred empty stalls on the grounds at the current meet.
"With all four elements, we have the whole package: year-round training, the racing, Barretts, and satellite wagering," Bradvica said. "You put these together, and we have the most complete horse racing facility in California, and really, I believe it is the most complete facility this side of Keeneland."
Longtime regulars would like to see racing continue at Fairplex.
"I hope this place stays around forever," said trainer Mel Stute, 75, who enjoyed the recent Tuesday afternoon from his box seat with a beer while needling his older brother, Warren.
Mel Stute is the all-time leading trainer at the fair with 171 career wins and 42 stakes victories. "Why wouldn't I? I'm the Charlie Whittingham of Pomona."
Larry Houdak is a fairgoer from La Mirada, Calif., who first attended the races at Fairplex in 1962 but gave up racing many years ago because he prefers poker. He came by for what he said was a final visit.
"This is really going to hurt the small-time jockeys," he said. "Where will they learn without this place? I hope it isn't (the last meet), but if (the racing board has) a chance to vote on it, I think it will be."
Chuck Taylor, of West Covina, Calif., has been a regular at Fairplex for a decade but said he only bets during the Los Angeles County Fair. "I wouldn't like it (if it closed). This is where I come. I only bet the races here."
"I couldn't be having a worse meet, personally," trainer Paul Aguirre said. "But I think this is a vital part of California racing and I hope it can continue."
George Duffy, manager of the training center for Hideaway Farms in nearby San Jacinto, Calif., agreed. "I don't know what will happen, but I hope it will stay open. It's just a great facility."