It was the third race, and Less Than Zero was the sentimental favorite.
"Less Than Zero! Now there's a horse that just about sums up the conditions here," said one player, referring to the canvas tent where off-track bettors have been relegated at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
"You can't see the television sets because of the glare, the wind blows in and all papers start flying, it gets cold when it's hot outside, and the guy behind the counter just tells you to take it or leave it.
"Less Than Zero, that's what it is," he repeated, drawing a circle around that entry in his racing form.
No one else at his table was willing to go along with the long shot, but everybody agreed with his assessment of the temporary off-track facility.
Every summer at fair time, bettors have to move their tip sheets, racing charts and ashtrays from the home-arts complex to make room for exhibits of food, arts and textiles. This year, the fair runs from Aug. 15 to 26.
The off-track regulars--many of whom didn't want to give their names--said they dislike the big, smoke-filled white tent. Some spend five hours a day there during the Del Mar race track season.
The bright tent cloth does little to filter out the light and the horses are hard to follow on television monitors, they say. Wind gusts blow through the large ventilation holes, occasionally blowing away ticket stubs, charts, handicap sheets and racing articles.
Last week, Ojai resident Jackie McDaniel began collecting signatures petitioning the fair board to allow players to use fair buildings year-round.
"The off-track wagering handles millions in cash" but gets treated like "a carnival concession rather than a bona fide business," her petition states.
McDaniel did not attend the meet Thursday, but many of the about 200 who did said they signed the petition. McDaniel has said she has collected more than 500 signatures.
The fairgrounds board will consider the petition at its meeting Tuesday, said Art Amelio, the board's assistant manager. But until a permanent off-track facility--scheduled for completion in 1992--is built, there's not much the board can do, he said.
While Amelio acknowledged that horse betting is an important source of revenue for the fairgrounds, he said the fair brings in about the same amount--$3 million--in only three weeks.
"And so far the board of directors has chosen to prioritize the fair," Amelio said.
Amelio was annoyed by the racing fans' criticism. "They get to use the fair buildings for 48 out of the 52 weeks of the season," he said. "They've been moved to the tent every year, but this year they decided to make a big issue out of it, and I think it's unfortunate."
He said fair officials have improved the tent facility. They installed more giant-screen televisions, which have less glare than the smaller glass-screen sets; repositioned the monitors to improve visibility; and installed smoke-eaters for better air quality, he said.
But the tent users are far from satisfied.
"These are shabby conditions for people who feed the fair 12 months a year," said Abe Kaminer, 74.
"They treat us like dogs," he said, crossing out Less than Zero to pencil in Round Mesa and He's Illustrious for his $2 exacta pick.
"They could surely give us a building and move a fair exhibit to the tent," agreed Pat Naylor, 52, who bet on favorite He's Illustrious to win.
At least one person seemed satisfied with the facility. A bald man with shifting eyes who paced nervously about the tent between races had a theory about the grumblers.
"I've been involved with gambling all my life . . . we need something to gripe about when we lose," he said, surveying the line at the betting window.
"But I'll tell you, if the horse that gets through the finish line first happens to be your horse, it doesn't matter if you're betting in a sewer."
As the horses approached the gate, his attention turned to the much-maligned television sets.
Nearby, Naylor boasted about "always winning because of the way I do things," as she pointed to a series of complicated equations scribbled on the racing form in front of her. Across her table, a bespectacled, cigar-smoking old-timer raised his eyebrow but chose not to rebut Naylor's claim.
The bell rang. Less Than Zero jumped out front. The crowd roared as He's Illustrious, a close second, charged midway through the one-mile race. Round Mesa was lost in the television glare, nowhere near the lead.
Less Than Zero galloped down the stretch. Viewers held their breath.
The winner by two lengths: Less than Zero.
The losers shook their heads and swore at their faithless horses. Bill Gelman, 52, was the first to recover.
Whispering to the person sitting next to him, he said: "I have a horse for the fourth that can't miss."