New Day Dawns at the Races : Gambling Gets Dose of Glamour at Ventura's Swank Derby Club


A Hollywood couple is doing Sunday brunch at the Island View Room, an off-track-betting parlor disguised as a restaurant in Ventura's fancy new $5.7-million Derby Club. Horse-racing novices, the couple feels comfortable with the bloody Marys, the fresh flowers on the linen tablecloth and the advertised vista of Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands. But the banks of flashing TVs and the intimidating parimutuel windows--not to mention the roomful of screaming adults--is about to induce a panic attack.

"So, you go up to this guy in the window and say the name of the race track first, then the amount you bet, then which race it's for, then the horse's name--no, the horse's number--then you say either win, place or show depending on how you're going to vote--why is this so hard?" casting agent Pat Melton says, breathlessly rehearsing for her maiden trip to the parimutuel window.

Timidly, Melton places her bet for the first race at Santa Anita Park: "Santa Anita," she says in a conspiratorial whisper, as if she's dealing with a bookie. "I'll take the fourth horse . . . no, that's not right . . . you can tell I'm new at this," she says to the clerk, who laughs and patiently leads her through the betting process.

Meanwhile, Melton's boyfriend, character actor Dennis Lipscomb, sweats bullets at their window table. While attempting to comprehend the ever-changing data on the half-dozen TV monitors ringing the ceiling, he is also attempting to decipher the hieroglyphics contained in the Daily Racing Form, the handicapper's bible. But when the track announcer blares "five minutes to post time," Lipscomb closes his eyes and picks a horse--any horse.

After fumbling through a $6 across-the-board bet at the parimutuel window, Lipscomb sits down next to Melton, thoroughly impressed with himself.

"Ten minutes ago I didn't know what across-the-board meant," he says, sipping an ice tea and relaxing for the first time. "This is more exciting than I thought. I'm getting a buzz."

A moment later, a bell sounds, starting the race. Eyes riveted on a tabletop TV, Lipscomb unexpectedly finds himself cheering as if the fate of planet Earth depended on the performance of an animal named Cardinal Peak.

As Melton's horse fights for last place, she buries her face in Lipscomb's arm and is nearly decapitated when he jumps up to celebrate Cardinal Peak's second-place finish. The combined place-and-show payoff earn him a net profit of 60 cents.

"What? I went through this for 60 lousy cents?" Lipscomb says. "Imagine if I'd bet some real money. Twenty bucks, say. I'm going to have to slow down. All this excitement could kill me."

Leaving after the eighth race to beat the traffic, Lipscomb and Melton are a few dollars poorer but definitely buzzed by their first day at the off-track races.

"I really had a lot of fun for somebody who didn't win a race," Melton says. "This place is really cool."

Gambling in Ventura County went uptown last month with the opening of the Derby Club. Rising above Surfers Point like a Moorish castle, the salmon-colored stucco monolith pulls in horse players unwilling to make the long drive to Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, but it has also been attracting another demographic: culturally deprived citizens who want to chase rainbows, dine and socialize in a clean, action-packed environment free of children and tobacco smoke.

"We're getting a lot of people we've never seen before," a staff member said. "Housewives, suburbanites, couples on dates."

The state-owned Derby Club replaces a decrepit complex, also at Seaside Park in the county fairgrounds. While the new 36,500-square-foot club is attractive enough to become a popular date destination, the old facility was too disreputable for social engagements. A complex of three small building, it drew 800 bettors a day since opening in 1987 but lacked the view and the panache to appeal to the Sunday brunch crowd.

"The Derby Club is 10 times better," said Karen Rosen, a Westlake accountant. "We were squeezed into the old place."

Legal in California since 1987, satellite wagering has been a wildly successful alternative to the racetracks. Last year, the state's 33 Watch and Wager facilities had a combined attendance of 4.8 million, producing a betting total of $1.4 billion, with $130 million of that going to the state.

The Derby Club broke out of the gates with an average daily betting total of just under $200,000, putting it in the top half of the state's satellite facilities. Weekend attendance often reaches a capacity of 1,200, a booming business that provokes grumblings among regulars, who feel the state should have built a larger facility.

"This is already too small," said Dick Daries of Simi Valley.

The Derby Club, fed closed-circuit signals from a satellite circling 23,000 miles above Ventura, plays live TV simulcasts from several racetracks. During the day, Santa Anita and San Francisco's Golden Gate Fields run concurrently; at night, it's thoroughbred racing from Hong Kong's Sha Tan Race Course, and harness racing from Los Alamitos.

Racetracks are, by their very nature, not very sanitary and filled with barnyard smells, not to mention colorful-but-seedy patrons and an element of decadence. The Derby Club has none of this. Everything smells new and looks well-scrubbed and vacuumed. Losing parimutuel tickets don't stay on the carpet very long.

Most of the first floor is taken up by the Shore Room, a dark cave for no-frills gamblers and cheap dates (admission is $4). The room is windowless, lest the light and the view create distractions. One section looks like a NASA control room: Rows of tiny cubicles face 10-foot TV screens, with bettors hunched over, studying the Daily Racing Form like students taking a final.

T-shirts, shorts and blue jeans are the favored attire. The predominantly male crowd consumes burgers at the concession stand and alcohol at the bar. On weekends, the Shore Room's 536-person capacity is stretched to the limit.

Ficus trees are posted on the carpeted stairway leading upstairs to the Island View Room and the Surfside Room, which regulars refer to as the "$8 room." Like the Island room, it has a restaurant with white linen tablecloths and waitresses in ruffled tuxedo shirts, but there is no view, unless you count the sunset photos adorning the walls.

A staffer explained that while some bettors don't like the hangar-size Island room--the picture windows allow in too much sunlight, making the TV graphics slightly more difficult to read--other bettors would gladly pay the $12 admission just for the view. Gambling aside, not many restaurants in the county can match the room's panoramic vistas.

Between races recently, actor Mickey Rooney gazed past the tops of swaying palms to Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands, purple-gray on the horizon, and said, "It really reminds me of Jamaica."

Admission to the Island View Room is free for night racing, when the view is limited to lights along the coast. But as the days grow longer, nighttime customers will be able to watch the sunset.

Men be warned: The Island View Room has a strictly enforced dress code requiring shirts with collars. Shorts, jeans and loud shirts with collars are OK, but T-shirts or turtlenecks will get you expelled to the $8 room. Regulars who remember the casual ambience of the old facility think the dress code is snooty.

"One day I thought I was dressing up by wearing a turtleneck to the Island View Room, but they wouldn't let me in," Daries said. "I don't mind the $12, but I don't know why I have to dress like a swell."

The Island View Room has another feature not found at most restaurants: gun-toting security guards strolling by the tables like accordion players. Wearing plain gray suits and Madonna-like headsets, they patrol with bulging .45s and stern expressions. Aside from guarding the thousands of dollars changing hands at the parimutuel windows, security watches for excessive emotional outbursts--guards politely remind exuberant bettors that fist-banging on the tables is verboten. Contrary to rumors, however, they don't bust diners for using the wrong fork.

Unlike the racetrack, the Derby Club isn't a caldron of inside dope and hot tips from informed sources. Another difference: At Santa Anita, dozens of expert handicappers hawk their tip sheets, but the Derby Club only sells Bob's Card. Supposedly "established in 1894, copyrighted in 1939," the $2 card comes with the warning that it is "not genuine without photo" of current owner Sam Giller.

Lacking tips and a basic understanding of handicapping, how does a newcomer select a horse? A casual survey of bettors at the Derby Club revealed various alternatives to the scientific approach. Bet the jockey. Bet the color of the horse. Bet the favorite. Bet the long shot. Bet your hunches. Bet your kids' birthdays. Bet your lottery numbers.

Rooney, a Westlake resident whose legendary movie career includes "National Velvet" and "The Black Stallion," uses several handicapping methods. For the sixth race at Santa Anita recently, he used the "star system," factoring in the jockey, the trainer and the horse's past performances. The system came up with Ogata Be Good, ridden by Corey Nakatani, the top jockey at the track. Bob's Card also picked the horse, tabbing it the day's "best bet."

Rooney, wearing a light green sweat shirt and the familiar twinkle in his eye, was confident to the point of cockiness, betting $15 on Ogata Be Good to whip the field.

"This horse will win," he said, "or I'll take my pants off."

Ogata Be Good finished out of the money, but Rooney didn't come through on his promise. Not with security on the scene. At the Island View Room, you can lose your shirt, but you must keep on your pants.


* WHAT: The Derby Club.

* WHEN: Wednesday through Sunday, day racing, post time 12:30 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, night racing, post time 6:45 p.m.

* WHERE: Seaside Park, Ventura.

* HOW MUCH: $4, Shore Room; $8 Surfside Room; $12 Island View Room; admission is free for night racing, with $8 minimum food order in Island View Room.

* CALL: 653-2533.

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