Back in Harness : Remodeled Track Trots Out Its Best for Season Opening
It has been neck-and-neck all the way, from the earliest legislative efforts in 1983 to allow harness racing back into the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, right up to the hairbreadth opening last Tuesday night.
Now industry officials anxiously await the first week’s attendance and betting figures, which they say will be an important early indicator of whether the nine-week racing season can survive against heavy odds.
Paint was still wet and forklifts were still unloading supplies for concessions in the colorfully renovated grandstand when Tuesday’s 6,793 free guests began arriving. They wagered $560,772 at the betting windows.
The figures elated park and racing officials, who said Fairplex needs a nightly average of 5,000 fans and a handle (the amount of money bet) of $500,000 to break even in its first season.
But on Wednesday--a colder night that followed the afternoon opening of Thoroughbred racing at Hollywood Park in Inglewood--Fairplex drew only 2,049 paying fans and a handle of $276,919.
Manager Predicted Slow Start
“If we start out low, that’s not going to be the end of the world,” said Fairplex manager Ralph Hinds, who predicted low attendance on early-season weeknights. “The weekend will give us a better indication of how it’s going to go. It would be a big disappointment not to make it, but we’re betting on it. We think this is a good marriage between harness racing and the facility that it needs to survive.”
The mood was festive on opening night as thousands clustered in the grandstand’s center near the finish line, leaving empty the more exclusive clubhouse seating area and the vast, comfortable indoor lounges.
In a departure from the usual track ambiance, the sounds were the last-minute whir of electric drills getting fixtures in place, the smell was distinctively fresh paint, and the sights were the soft pastels blended by a sensitive decorator.
“It’s like history, sort of,” said Fran Bardwell, who came from his home in Long Beach “just to be a first nighter, and because it’s free.”
“Can you believe this? This old place? It’s beautiful,” said Lucy Perkins of Pomona, who was a jubilant winner in the first race.
‘Better Than a Slot Machine’
“Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. Like an Exacta, you only pay $3 and if you know what you’re doing, that’s pretty good odds. Better than a slot machine,” said Burton Cleavenger of Los Angeles, who said he follows harness racing because “it’s more my speed.”
“This whole scene’s fantastic,” said stable owner Paul Blumenfeld, who entered three horses opening night. “It’s risky financially, but you can’t beat the excitement.”
The revival of harness racing in Pomona is the result of a three-year legislative battle to keep alive a sport that was strong in Southern California for about 30 years until the 1950s. The sport began at the Pomona fairgrounds in 1922 and ended there in 1970, when the Los Alamitos race track opened and the Legislature decreed that harness racing should be a nighttime sport.
Some of the loss of popularity has been attributed to the rise of Thoroughbred racing, whose sponsors oppose extended harness racing seasons on the grounds that they would “oversaturate” Southern California’s market for horse racing and parimutuel betting.
Only Los Alamitos remained after Del Mar and Hollywood Park gave up harness racing in recent years. In the season that ended earlier this month, attendance at Los Alamitos dropped almost 18% from last year and its average handle of $754,573 represented a drop of 8.5%.
Prize Purses Are Smaller
The defection of fans is sometimes attributed to purses that are smaller than those for Thoroughbred racing, resulting in a loss of big bettors and therefore some of the excitement.
Industry officials say harness racing requires continuity to attract fans, and its future in Southern California may depend on its success in Pomona, where the county fair race track lies dormant most of the year. Now renamed, refurbished and open for a wide variety of activities throughout the year, Fairplex will have 15 weeks of racing in two short seasons that will augment racing at Los Alamitos. The California harness circuit also includes Sacramento, where racing will begin shortly after the current Pomona season ends June 21.
State Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino) submitted bills calling for 25-week seasons in Pomona in 1983 and 1984. The first bill died early in committee and the second was vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian, who objected to the length of the season, calling it detrimental to all racing. Both bills were opposed by the Thoroughbred racing industry, including the officials of Santa Anita Park race track in Arcadia.
The bill that now permits two short seasons a year was signed by the governor last September. It was sponsored by then-Assemblyman Richard Alatorre (D-Los Angeles) and co-sponsored by Ayala. The current season will continue five nights a week--Tuesdays through Saturdays--until June 21, and the next will run from Nov. 4 to Dec. 15.
“This just barely gives us a break-even point,” one Fairplex official complained.
Surrounding cities hailed harness racing as a preferable alternative to drag racing, which had been considered for the Pomona race track. Pomona stands to collect $350,000 a year in sales tax revenue from harness racing.
Remodeled in Five Weeks
A long-planned, multimillion-dollar remodeling of the track and grandstand was ordered by the Fairplex board of directors and began five weeks ago. Hinds said he intends “to build a reputation on service, quality and good food.” The remodeling includes new lighting and extensive refurbishing to create outdoor and indoor restaurants for clubhouse members.
“I think they’ve done a superb job,” said Joseph V. McLoone, president of the U. S. Trotting Assn. “What we have seen is the industry in California going down, but this looks excellent.”
Blumenfeld, operator of the 20-horse Blumenfeld Stables, said, “I think Ralph Hinds is doing everything he can. He’s helping harness racing more than anybody else around here.”
Rick Kuebler, a driver who has participated in 7,000 harness races all over the world and won an estimated 1,300 of them, said Pomona officials “are bending over backwards to do everything possible” to further the sport.
“I think harness racing definitely depends on Pomona for our southern circuit,” Kuebler said.
Effect on Breeding
Stan Bergstein, executive vice president of Harness Tracks of America, said that expanding California’s harness racing will boost the breeding of higher quality horses for the sport.
“They’ve developed a fairly decent caliber of California horse now, but they’re still not up to the giant tracks in the East,” Bergstein said. “Now there’s a fairly promising western circuit, and that will improve everything.”
Bergstein, who oversees 46 harness tracks, said that besides Pomona, there is only one other located at a county fairground, in Buffalo, N.Y.
The opening in Pomona, Bergstein said, “impressed me in two ways. First, the rejuvenation of the facilities in a short time was a really great job for a county fair. But mostly, I was impressed by the young crowd. If you can start attracting a younger crowd, you’re getting someplace.”
Strong in Midwest, East
Harness racing has its roots in the Midwest and East, where it is still a major sport. Bergstein said the recent move to year-round harness racing in the East has had a detrimental effect in California, since the country’s best horses no longer spend part of their year in the West.
All harness horses are standardbreds and all are said to be descendants of an English Thoroughbred named Messenger who mated with several carriage horse mares in New York in the 1780s. A descendant of Messenger, Hambletonian, was legendary around Chester, N.Y., in 1849 for his beauty. Hambletonian is said to have sired 1,331 foals that were noted for their gait and speed and came to be called standardbreds. Early standardbreds were valued as carriage horses and were raced at early country fairs.
With the advent of automobiles, standardbreds achieved new popularity as trotters and pacers, pulling sulkies in country fairs. Their drivers often are their owners or trainers.
Fairplex officials said more than 12,000 men and women drive harness horses and about 50,000 people hold membership in the U. S. Trotting Assn.
Fairplex opened with 1,120 stables filled with standardbreds. The grandstand and clubhouse were chaotic scenes two hours before opening, going right down to the wire with late arrivals of ice, drinks, food and novelty gifts.
Rows of freshly painted benches were forklifted from tarps in front of the grandstands to indoor lounges only minutes before the gates opened. Some concessions opened late, and others never did.
In the track’s empty gift shop, pictures were being nailed to bare walls as boxes of merchandise stood unopened.
“Piece o’ cake,” said co-owner Mark Hill. “We do seven fairs a year. But none this bad. If we don’t get it done, we don’t, that’s all.”
Waves of white-shirted waiters were setting tables in Top of the Park, the clubhouse’s newly decorated dining room that was formally dressed with ice sculpture and massive flower displays for opening night.
Maitre d’ Floyd Fey worked until the closing of Santa Anita Park’s season the previous day, and until midnight at Top of the Park. He remained ebullient through the serving of a capacity opening night crowd of 176 indoors and 250 at outdoor tables. The menu included escargot and tournedos of beef bearnaise, along with a selection of traditional entrees priced around $12.
“We had a few rough spots, but surprisingly few,” said the happy Hinds.