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Ventura County Fair : Gamblers Grumbling About New Quarters : Fairgrounds: Bettors are confined to crowded tents during the county fair. But officials’ money is on a new off-track facility to open next year.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hot, sweaty and bothered, Ventura resident Jim Barrick considered his race picks and impatiently bided his time.

“I’ll be glad when they open the permanent building,” said Barrick, 38, a fisherman who was betting on the horses earlier this week at the Ventura County Fairgrounds’ off-track betting facility. “This is terrible.”

Usually the county’s “Watch & Wager” operation runs out of three fairground buildings, but during the county fair, gamblers are unceremoniously shoved aside into unair-conditioned tents. There they step over each other and grumble about how they miss their cushier, roomier surroundings.

Barrick and his colleagues have been betting in the tent since fair officials forced them out of the regular complex July 1. They cannot return to the buildings until early September.

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“This isn’t set up well for people to spend so much money,” Barrick continued, noting that the usual facilities include waitresses and roomy tables with a clear view of the television screen. “Over there it adds a lot of class.”

Fairground promoters promise class will abound when they open their new $5.4-million betting emporium next January. No longer will the bettors be shuttled back and forth in summertime between the trio of buildings and the sweltering tent. Then, it will be only the best all year long for Ventura County’s horse racing fans, promoters say.

After all, about one-third of the state-run fairground’s nearly $6 million in annual revenue comes from off-track betting operations, giving fairground officials more than enough reason to shower their gamblers with amenities.

“It’s going to rival anything this county’s ever seen,” declared Michael Paluszak, the enthusiastic general manager of the fairgrounds. “It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened at Seaside Park in a long time.”

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Rising 20 feet above the ocean at the mouth of the Ventura River, built in a nouveau California Mission style, the new complex will sport three levels of betting rooms and oodles of televisions in its 36,500-square-foot interior and patios. The gambling hall will be under construction throughout this year’s fair, which begins next Wednesday.

“No matter where you are in the facility, you won’t be more than 10 feet from a TV screen,” Paluszak promised. “There’ll be hundreds of ‘em, everywhere.”

The building’s ground floor will house the Shoreline Room, where gamblers pay a $4 admission and can buy snacks from a concession stand, Paluszak said. Up a level and costing $8 for admission will be the Surfside Room, where casually dressed patrons can order meals without breaking their betting stride, he said.

But if customers want real luxury while they bet on the horses, they can ascend to the Island View Room on the top level, Paluszak said.

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By contrast, the current white, flapping tent is a jungle of aggressive bettors, crammed practically shoulder-to-shoulder along long picnic-type benches, their sports pages and betting books spread pell-mell across the table tops. Green Astroturf carpets the floor and the pungent smells of hot dogs, sauerkraut and popcorn drift across the seating arena from a small grill.

“This is awful,” said Lee, a gambler from Northridge, as he hunched over betting sheets. “It’s too crowded, too noisy. I don’t like it when we’re in here.”

Others said the atmosphere in the tent deters them from gambling as much as they usually would.

“Crowds make me nervous,” said west San Fernando Valley resident Ria Brown, curling her mouth into an anxious smile. “If I’m in the other place, I could stay all day. Here, I only come for one race, and then I have to go.”

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