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Fairgrounds Bets Big on Gambling Spot : Business: The high-toned, $5.7-million Derby Club eschews windows but has TV screens to spare. It opens Wednesday.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Something is missing from the front of the Ventura County Fairgrounds’ very pink Derby Club, which will open Wednesday to hordes of eager off-track gamblers.

It’s not the requisite palm trees--they’re there, albeit scrawny with youth, their fronds mere tufts of green atop skinny, brown trunks.

It’s not the white trim on the parapet or the shiny nameplate above the rounded, teal-and-glass doors.

What sets the front of the new betting facility apart from the facades of other buildings in the city is windows--it has none.

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“It has to be pitch black in here, like a casino,” said Susan Pollack, who decorated the building’s interior with her partners, Toni Henkelman and Catherine Smith Dart. “The big thing is the TV, and you can’t have any glare falling on it.”

Make that TVs--plural. The 36,500-square-foot building has more than 200 televisions--small ones perched on side tables, medium-sized ones flashing six feet apart on the walls and 10-foot giants stretching nearly from floor to ceiling in most of the betting rooms.

The building may be, in fact, an off-track gambler’s dream--galloping equines flickering electronically at every turn, wide tables on which to spread newspapers, cubicles for intensive study of statistics and relief from such distractions as sunlight.

“It’s going to be a whole lot nicer over there,” said Russ Schaeffer, 20, a regular at the scruffy McBride Building on the fairgrounds, where an average of 600 to 700 people lay down money on the horses each race day.

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Schaeffer was waiting on a hamburger by the concession stand, one eye on the televised action.

“There’s not enough space to be among yourself here,” he said, gesturing to the long, metal tables jammed even on a slow afternoon. “It’s always too crowded.”

Gamblers, both local and statewide, help keep the California State Division of Fairs and Expositions in business, and they paid for the $5.7-million Derby Club with proceeds from their bets.

The state division paid about $4.3 million for the building and the local district picked up the rest of the tab, fairgrounds officials said.

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Where the McBride Building suffers from stale air, the new Derby Club has state-of-the-art ventilation--not that smoking will be allowed anywhere in the building. Where the old place is merely serviceable, the new facility actually looks pretty inside.

A fee of $4--the same tariff it takes to get into the main room at McBride--buys entrance to the Shore Room, decorated with teal-and-gray vinyl chairs, gray Formica tables with teal trim, a carpet peppered with images of small sailboats and, of course, televisions.

Upstairs, those willing to shell out an additional $4 can gamble in the Surfside Room, where patrons sit at cloth-covered tables on cushions decorated in a funky teal, plum and yellow fabric. Photos of beach sunsets provide a distraction from the ever-present TVs.

Finally, for people who like to bet in style, the Island View Club is available at either $12 per visit or a membership fee of $1,500 a year. This is the only room with windows, although they are covered by shutters when the horses race, because even a wide view of the Pacific Ocean takes a back seat to the tube here.

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The room has watercolor seascapes on the walls, fine white china with teal trim on the table--teal is very big at the Derby Club--a smaller bar than its less expensive counterparts and small televisions gracing some tables--in addition to the dozens lining the walls.

Fairgrounds management promises “fine dining” in the Island View Club, cafe-style treatment, including table service, in the Surfside Room, and concession fare and self-service in the general admission Shore Room.

“By and large, it will still do the same things as our other facilities do,” said Teri Raley, fairgrounds spokeswoman, comparing the Derby Club to the operations at McBride. “Only this is a heck of a lot nicer.”


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