A crowd of 3,334 bet almost half a million dollars Tuesday night at Fairplex Park, the new harness-track facility at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona.
Those figures are small potatoes compared to the business the thoroughbred tracks do locally, but had Fairplex been able to maintain similar nightly averages for the entire season, Ralph Hinds would have been satisfied.
As it is, Hinds, the chief executive officer for the Fairplex, is disappointed. The track will end its 45-night season Saturday with averages of about 2,700 and $360,000.
The Tuesday crowd was hardly typical. It was helped by a free-admission promotion and a carryover in the Pick Six betting pool because no one had hit six winners in more than a week. Most Tuesdays, fans at the Fairplex were almost outnumbered by the horses and the horsemen on the grounds.
Before the first season at the Fairplex started, Hinds thought that the track might average $450,000 to $500,000 a night.
"We had a positive response locally and developed a new clientele," Hinds said. "But we were disappointed in that we were unable to draw many people from Los Angeles and many of the fans who supported harness racing at Los Alamitos."
An 18-day season during the fair at Pomona in the dog days of September drew average crowds of 14,700 last year. Betting mostly on thoroughbred races, they averaged $2.5 million a day. Nationally, business was better at only seven other tracks.
"Fairplex didn't get its harness dates until December, so we couldn't begin to educate the fans during the fair season," Hinds said. "In the future, maybe we can use those big September crowds to our advantage by planting the idea that we're also running harness racing here."
Small handles discourage big bettors.
"It's a Catch-22 situation," Hinds said. "A big bettor doesn't want to go to a track where the handle is so low that his bet will make the tote board bounce. But we need the big bettors to get the handle up. Maybe some of them stayed at Los Alamitos, to bet the quarter horses that are running now. Or maybe they did their betting through illegal channels."
Alan Horowitz, executive secretary of the Western Standardbred Assn., doesn't believe that the Fairplex was hurt by an overlap of two other race meetings, the thoroughbreds at Hollywood Park in the daytime and the quarter horses at Los Alamitos at night.
"Night racing has coexisted with the thoroughbreds in the daytime for many years, so that's not a consideration," Horowitz said. "If Los Alamitos' quarter-horse handle should go up more than $100,000 a night after the Fairplex closes Saturday, then I'll change my mind and say the two nighttime tracks affected each other.
"There are two handicaps in dealing with new patrons, as the Fairplex has: (1) the difficulty in getting them to come back on a regular basis, and (2) they don't bet a lot because they are unsure of themselves."
Hollywood Park and Los Alamitos are also having disappointing seasons. "There's been a general decline in the racing business locally," Hinds said. "There couldn't have been a worse time for us to enter the market."
Horowitz said horsemen were pleased by the conditions at the Fairplex. "They had a 1:54 1/5 mile there (by the pacer, California Blaster)," Horowitz said. "It took Hollywood Park and Los Alamitos a lot of years before they had horses racing that fast. And it was done by a California-bred, of all things."
Harness racing in California, considered to be a terminal case before this year's 42-week schedule gave horsemen a virtual year-round circuit, will continue at Sacramento into mid-August, then will be at Los Alamitos until mid-October.
The second meeting at the Fairplex will begin Nov. 4 and go through Dec. 13, when it will be racing in the afternoons, coinciding with the thoroughbreds at Hollywood Park. Hinds requested afternoon dates for the fall, because the Fairplex plant is not winterized.
"Harness fans are a different breed from thoroughbred fans, so that shouldn't be a problem," Horowitz said. "Even though business was expected to be better at the Fairplex, the poor turnouts weren't because management didn't do a good job. I think they'll do what they have to do in order to be successful."
Sandy Hawley, whose business had soured at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, is the leading rider at Canterbury Downs after moving to the track outside Minneapolis this spring.
Hawley's 67 winners through Wednesday give him a career total of 4,990. He might get No. 5,000 before Sunday, when he will be at Woodbine in his native Canada to accept the Avelino Gomez Memorial Award.
Only six riders--Bill Shoemaker, Johnny Longden, Laffit Pincay, Angel Cordero, Jorge Velasquez and Larry Snyder--have won 5,000 or more races. Shoemaker is at the top of the list with more than 8,500. Longden, the only rider in the group who has retired, was last year's recipient of the Gomez award, named after the jockey who died after a spill at Woodbine in 1980.
Prissy Fein, the fastest qualifier, will be favored to win Saturday night's $100,000 Vessels Maturity at Los Alamitos, but trainer Blane Schvaneveldt is given a good chance to take the stake for a fourth time with either Dash in Style or Go Partner. Schvaneveldt will also saddle a third starter, Sitting on Go, in the 10-horse field.
It cost $600 to nominate a horse for this year's Triple Crown races, with the fee rising to $3,000 for a second deadline in mid-March.
Of the 30 horses that were made eligible for $3,000 apiece, only six--Bordeaux Bob, Fobby Forbes, Icy Groom, Imperious Spirit, Johns Treasure and Zabaleta--actually ran in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes.
Of those six, only Johns Treasure earned a paycheck, collecting $124,168 for his second-place finish in the Belmont.
The defection of Snow Chief, who will run for a beefed-up purse in the Silver Screen Handicap at Hollywood Park July 5, may lead to a full field of 14 3-year-olds in the St. Paul Derby at Canterbury Downs on June 29.
Wednesday, the owners of two horses, Broad Brush and Forty Kings, each paid a supplemental fee of $10,000 to run at Canterbury.
Broad Brush, third in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, which was won by Snow Chief, won the Ohio Derby at Thistledown last Saturday, with Forty Kings, a 76-1 longshot, finishing third.
Other possibles for the St. Paul Derby are Clear Choice, Rampage, Wheatly Hall, Vernon Castle, Bachelor Beau and Bolshoi Boy, who was second in the Ohio Derby.
Racing Notes It's been a banner year for Charlie Whittingham both on and off the track. The 73-year-old trainer saddled Ferdinand, his first Kentucky Derby winner; then, more recently, Ack Ack, the 5-year-old Whittingham guided to Horse of the Year honors in 1971, was elected to the Racing Hall of Fame. Ack Ack polled only 42% of the votes but outpointed Bald Eagle, Riva Ridge and Arts and Letters. Genuine Risk, winner of the 1980 Kentucky Derby, was a more clear-cut Hall of Fame winner among the fillies, getting 61% of the vote to Lamb Chop's 22%. Burley Parke was the winner among the trainers on the ballot, edging Henry Forrest and Buster Millerick. Other inductees will be Hamburg, top 2-year-old of 1897, and William R. Johnson, who trained a century ago. They were elected by a committee.