Rank-And-File Have Say; Meet Stays at Fairplex

by Jack Shinar

Bowing to pressure from a torrent of racing industry insiders, the California Horse Racing Board turned thumbs down June 26 on the Los Angeles County Fair's plan to move its 17-day 2002 meet to Santa Anita Park.

The board voted 4-1 to keep the fair meet at its Pomona headquarters, Fairplex Park, but at least two commissioners, Roger Licht and Marie Moretti, said they would be willing to entertain the proposed change of venue in the future.

About 20 witnesses, mostly trainers and owners, testified before the board, and they were nearly unanimous in their adamant support for keeping fair racing at Fairplex. James Henwood, chief executive officer for the fair association, said after the meeting he would apply to operate the county's 64th annual meet at Fairplex when the CHRB meets again next month. But he challenged the industry and the board to provide the kind of support they expressed during the June 26 meeting.

In particular, he noted that half of Fairplex's off-track stabling funding, $1.5 million, has been allocated to the San Luis Rey Downs training facility in San Diego County. As a result, he said Fairplex Park is currently closed to training, but will reopen July 28 in preparation for the upcoming meet, Sept. 13-29.

"If they want this to happen, we need the CHRB to get behind what we are trying to do in order to bring the finest bull ring racing we can to Southern California," Henwood said.

Henwood said he was undecided on whether to bring another change of venue request to the board in the future, but would have further discussions on the possibility.

Unlike the June 6 meeting of the CHRB, which was a referendum on Magna Entertainment's near-monopoly of California racing on the major circuit, Magna was hardly mentioned this time around. At the earlier meeting, which ended with a deadlocked board, commissioners asked to hear from others besides racing associations on this issue.

And did they ever. A two-inch thick package of correspondence accompanied the meeting agenda. Moretti said she had never received so many phone calls and e-mails on a CHRB issue. There was more than two hours of public testimony. Virtually all of it favored keeping the Fairplex meet the way it is.

Trainers such as Warren and Mel Stute, brothers who have been racing horses at Fairplex since the 1940s, talked about keeping the Fairplex tradition alive. Caesar Dominguez, Clifford Sise, and Jack Van Berg spoke on behalf of the "little guys" who form the backbone of racing and wouldn't be able to survive in the game any longer without the fair.

Richard Baltas pointed out that horses who "can't win at $10,000 can go to the fair and win some races." Robert Bean said that much of the state's racing stock would be sold to out-of-state interests without the fair's presence.

Jockey agent Richard Silverstein recited a long list of well-known trainers and jockeys who got their start on the fair circuit whom, he said, might not have had the chance to succeed otherwise.

Owners Barbara Dutton, Anthony Scott, and Mace Siegel echoed many of those same sentiments.

One exception was Bob Lewis, who said he attended the races at Pomona as a youngster in the 1930s and goes every season. Although a 35-year member of the Los Angeles County Fair Association, he said he favored the move to Santa Anita.

"We have to recognize that tradition is important, but we have to move forward," Lewis said. "The change would be advantageous to racing. I can remember mid-week crowds at the fair where you couldn't find a place to stand on the apron to watch a race, but Fairplex, like all of racing, has suffered from reduced attendance in recent years. We can't stand still in this sport. We need to try to new things."

Board chairman Alan Landsburg agreed with Lewis and was the lone board member to support the move. Licht, Moretti, and commissioners John Sperry and John Harris voted against it. Sheryl Granzella abstained, and Bill Bianco did not attend.

Harris said he thought moving the meet to Santa Anita would fail to "revitalize it," and said other factors outweighed making it an experiment.