Although neither track has gone on record, according to one Southern California trainer, Fairplex Park has run its last race and will lease its 17 allotted days in 2002 to Hollywood Park, which would run from Sept. 13 through Sept. 29.
“I understand from very good sources that Churchill Downs (Incorporated, the owner of Hollywood Park) has bought the dates,” said trainer Doug Peterson.
“I’m glad for Churchill, because it does a good job. It’s been in racing forever and I’m very appreciative of all the things it does. On the other hand, I’d hate to see Fairplex end after 63 years of racing. It’s such a good place for the small guy. The underdog gets a chance there and it’s hard to see something like that go. But things are changing. (Frank) Stronach is buying tracks and buying (racing) dates, so at least Churchill is able to go head and head with him and hopefully racing can be the better for it.”
Speculation has been rampant for months that Fairplex Park, a 5/8-mile track in Pomona, some 20 miles east of the Stronach-owned Santa Anita, would lease its dates to CDI, which would run them at Hollywood Park next year, and, presumably, in the future.
If that is so, the consensus among horsemen is not favorable. They appreciate the unique blue-collar flavor of Fairplex Park, where racing is up close and personal.
“I wouldn’t want to see it happen,” said trainer Paul Aguirre, “because I love Fairplex Park. Sentimentally, it’s where I’ve done my best and I’ve got a lot of good memories there (in 1999, he shared leading trainer honors at Fairplex with Mel Stute).
“But if they do race at Hollywood, for me it would be the next-best thing, not only because I live near Hollywood, but mainly because it’s where I train my horses, and horses always run better on the track where they train. Plus, I wouldn’t have to ship, and Hollywood has a turf course, which Fairplex does not.”
Mel Stute, who resides in Glendora, a few furlongs from Pomona, has won more races at Fairplex than any trainer in history. He has been going there since he was a child, for more than six decades. Obviously, he would hate to see it become a part of history.
“I’m definitely against changing the dates,” the 74-year-old Stute said. “Fairplex is one of the few places in American racing that has a bit of tradition. It was one of the first tracks in California when the state was approved for pari-mutuel racing (in 1934). When I was a boy in Baldwin Park, the biggest thing in the world was to go to the races at Pomona. The crowds were so large, they couldn’t let you in until some people left. In those days, you just paid for going to the Fair and it cost you a dollar to go to the races.
“Ending racing at the Fair would bother me in a sense, but not because I do so good there. It’s really not that. I’m the all-time leading trainer with 150 winners (actually 165). A guy said to me recently, ”˜How do you win 150 races at a meeting like that?’ I said, ”˜Do you think three a year is too many?’ I’ve been training there for over 50 years.”
Martin Pedroza, the leading jockey in Fairplex history, was philosophical.
“I wish it would never happen,” Pedroza said. “If it does, there’s nothing I can do about it. You just have to keep on working. But I wish they’d race at Pomona, because I make good money there. I do good everywhere else, anyway, but if it’s up to me, I say don’t do it. If racing ends, tradition would remain in the form of good memories. A lot of old-timers have raced there, and many newcomers made a name for themselves there.”
“I’m against it,” said trainer Bill Spawr. “Fairplex gives the cheaper horses that take a beating all year on the major circuits a chance to earn some money. These trainers and their horses supported the other race programs throughout the year, so they should have a chance to do well at Fairplex while the big guys take a little break. It’s not fair to destroy that opportunity.”
One trainer who has never raced at Fairplex said running at Hollywood would help horses preparing for the Breeders’ Cup, which is presented annually in late October or early November.
“I’ve never run a horse at Fairplex,” said Simon Bray. “Not because I don’t like it or I don’t want to. I’ve never had the opportunity. But running at Hollywood would help me, especially on the turf. That would be good to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup, because usually, trainers with horses running in the Breeders’ Cup are bailing out of California early to get ready and they often take some of their other horses with them.”
If Fairplex does abort in 2002, it will be news to Frank Monteleone.
“From what I understand, some of the vendors (who hawk their wares during the Fair meet) have already signed contracts for next year based on the track being open,” the 52-year-old trainer said. “If the dates aren’t run there, there’s going to be a lot of problems. Vendors will go, but they’re going to want reduced fees and everything else. I don’t know if the state can do it.”
Danny Sorenson is against a switch for many reasons.
“Unless the racing secretary at Hollywood Park writes the same kind of races they write at Fairplex, it will exclude a lot of horses from running,” the 43-year-old jockey said. “The number of horses per race at Pomona is a benefit to racing. Fairplex has fuller fields and 12 races a day. There’s no grass course, but they do have lots of $5,000 and $8,000 claiming horses that can’t run at Hollywood unless races are written for them.
“Then there’s the matter of (on-track) attendance. Nobody comes to Hollywood Park. Who wants to drive to that area? The commute has become a disaster, plus many people in racing live near Santa Anita, which is near Pomona. It’s more convenient for them to enjoy racing at the Fair. They like the food, the atmosphere, the lower profile.
“Personally, I’m going to be fine wherever I ride. I have no problem with that. I just don’t see moving from Fairplex to Hollywood being a benefit to racing at all.”
THE HOMESTRETCH: As forecast first in the Dec. 4-10 editions of Gaming Today under “News You Can Bet On,” Pat Valenzuela has been granted a conditional license to resume riding by the California Horse Racing Board. The 39-year-old jockey, whose career has been dotted with suspensions for substance abuse, has been suspended since Feb. 11, 2000. He is expected to make his return at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.