Fairplex deserves to be a bigger player in Southland horse racing

Like sniffles in August, the Fairplex racing season has come and gone quickly.

Monday was the last day of its 18-day, 15-session season. Few paid much attention, even those in racing.

The purses were small and the horses were unheralded. The A-list jockeys took their families on vacation or headed for the golf course. This newspaper ignored it. The perception remained that it is, after all, little more than an appendage to the month-long L.A. County Fair in Pomona.

But on the eve of Wednesday’s prestigious Oak Tree opener at Santa Anita, which ends with a second consecutive Breeders’ Cup extravaganza in early November, there are murmurs in Southern California horse racing that could make Fairplex the 500-pound gorilla in the room.


The Breeders’ Cup, as great as it is for racing and for the climate of the sport here, will always take its show elsewhere. Left behind will be problems of a Southern California industry up to its hip boots in muck.

Foremost is that it is being held hostage by one of its own, Hollywood Park. Once a crown jewel of sport and society, a magnate for equine stars and Hollywood stars, it is now a real estate development in waiting.

No matter what spin might be put on it, Hollywood Park does not continue to operate for the betterment of the game, but for the cash flow that keeps afloat the condominium builders until economic conditions can again provide loans for bulldozers and cement mixers.

This is the same group that romanced the locals around Northern California’s Bay Meadows with visions of condos, restaurants and sugar plums and now has left the premises with fenced-off piles of broken cement and dirt.


Promised was economic impact. Delivered was an eyesore. Take heed, Inglewood.

This work in progress could happen soon. Who knows? The federal government could decide any day on the need for bailout money for racetrack demolition specialists.

But until that happens, or the economy starts raining dollars, Hollywood Park will limp from meeting to meeting, requesting and getting its prime dates at the last second, and leaving much of the rest of Southern California racing in limbo.

That’s where the murmurs come in, murmurs that wonder why racing officials keep giving Hollywood Park keys to the house when it has long ago declared it wanted a divorce and would be moving out. Why not beat the executioner? Why not thank them for their service, spread around those precious dates to other facilities, and mention something about not letting the door hit them in the rear end on the way out.

This is where Fairplex comes in. And don’t misunderstand. Its officials are no more pushing the aforementioned scenario for their own purposes than they are capable of handling such a thing right now.

Fairplex races are over a five-eighths-of-a-mile track, a bullring. Its grandstand seats perhaps 12,000 and was built about the time General Custer was making his last stand. It would need to be made into a mile track, probably need a turf course, need more than $100 million in improvements. It doesn’t have that, nor any mandate at the moment that would produce it.

What it does have is space to grow, and a desire to do so. It also has an operating group that includes Chief Executive Jim Henwood and veteran racing consultants Cliff Goodrich and Tom Robbins, all of whom have a feel and vision for the needs of the sport.

Its dirt track gets high marks in a state where the word “synthetics” has become an expletive. And it has barn space, which is vital once the bulldozers roll at Hollywood Park.


Tom Knust is the racing secretary at Fairplex. He has worked in nearly all aspects of the sport. He survived a life-threatening and permanently crippling injury in Vietnam. Perhaps more life threatening, he has handled jockey books for Pat Valenzuela and Corey Nakatani.

He is a horseman with credibility, and so you listen when he says, “I think Fairplex is going to be a major player one day.”

Knust says he will soon meet with other Fairplex officials and hopes to hit on three major proposals:

* That Fairplex become the area training center for 2-year-olds, thereby taking pressure off other tracks and getting the young equine stars on the now-perceived safer dirt surface -- “I’d say 90% of the horsemen now think that Fairplex is the best surface in the area,” Knust says.

* That Fairplex get a commitment from the various horsemen groups now, rather than waiting as Hollywood Park dithers, for help in expansion of the track and training facility, the latter ideally a year-round thing.

* That Fairplex become the feed co-op center for the area, at a substantial savings for horsemen.

This is all pie in the sky. Right now, Fairplex has been told that state funds for stable costs are in jeopardy. Instead of getting more, Fairplex might get less.

But when the heavy equipment rolls at Hollywood Park -- or maybe even before it does -- and as Santa Anita and Del Mar happily absorb more of the racing dates, look for little old Fairplex to get an invitation to the dance, too.