SACRAMENTO — A controversial measure to allow up to 10 weeks of harness racing at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona has been approved by the Legislature and sent to Gov. George Deukmejian.
A similar bill won passage last year but was vetoed by Deukmejian, who has indicated he will sign this year's more modest version.
This year's measure by Assemblyman Richard Alatorre (D-Los Angeles) is aimed at bolstering the sagging fortunes of the state's harness racing industry as well as boosting plans to improve facilities at the fairgrounds.
It was approved by the Assembly Monday on a 41-22 vote after passing the Senate 26-5 last week.
Sponsor of the Bill
"Pomona could very well become the headquarters of harness racing in the country," predicted Sen. Ruben Ayala (D-Chino), whose district covers Pomona and who carried the bill on the Senate floor.
"It's going to help the economy of the area through new jobs and (people) staying at local hotels and motels," Ayala said.
Still, Ralph Hinds, president of the Los Angeles County Fair Assn., which operates the fairgrounds, said it is unclear whether 10 weeks of racing will be enough to be profitable.
Hinds described the bill as a "mixed blessing" since projections show that by staging 10 weeks of racing the balance sheet will merely reach the break-even point.
Under current law, the fairgrounds is allowed 18 days of horse racing a year during the fair, which begins today.
Under the bill, the state Horse Racing Board would be authorized to grant as many as 10 weeks of harness racing to the Los Angeles County Fair Assn. The board supported the bill and has established a committee to decide when racing at Pomona should be scheduled next year.
If the bill is signed by Deukmejian, Hinds estimates that the city of Pomona could gain as much as $350,000 a year from increased sales taxes and a small percentage of the money wagered on races.
The fair association has lobbied for passage of similar legislation for several years. Last year a proposal to authorize 25 weeks of harness racing at Pomona and give a financial break to quarter-horse racing at Los Alamitos was approved by the Legislature. However, Deukmejian rejected the bill because he was concerned about oversaturation of racing in Southern California.
The current bill would add only 10 weeks at Pomona and five weeks of quarter-horse racing elsewhere.
Kevin Brett, a spokesman for the governor, said that with the changes made in the proposal Deukmejian "will look upon the bill more favorably."
'Survival of the Industry'
Alatorre said he has spoken to officials in the Administration who have indicated that Deukmejian will sign the measure. Alatorre said he believes Deukmejian has been persuaded that the "survival of the industry" could be at stake.
Parimutuel wagering on harness racing has been declining in recent years. To counter the trend, the industry has sought more racing dates and a year-round circuit in Southern California to keep harness horses from leaving the state.
Alatorre's bill was opposed by lobbyists for other tracks, especially the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club and Santa Anita. They argued that the bill still would prompt too much racing in Southern California and provide a boost to Hollywood Park, which also operates Los Alamitos.
They contended that Hollywood Park would operate the races at Pomona and control too much of the racing industry in Southern California.
However, the fair association's Hinds said that Hollywood Park has not applied for the concession to operate at Pomona. Hinds said he has been approached by six other operators, whom he did not identify.
Harness racing has been regarded as a keystone to using the fairgrounds year-round.
To improve the chances of attracting harness racing, the fair association has spent $3 million improving the track in Pomona. But it has been waiting to spend another $7 million on improvements, especially along the backstretch, depending on how much money the track nets in wagering from harness racing. Estimates range from $450,000 to $750,000 a day.
Opposition to the Alatorre bill from the Pomona area has been, if anything, low-key.
Ayala said that some clergymen have expressed opposition in the past but that he has not heard from religious leaders this year.
The Rev. David Lehmberg, senior pastor at the Claremont United Methodist Church, said he has not taken a position on the Alatorre bill. However, he said the church generally opposes "any additional gambling interests being introduced into the area on the basis that gambling is morally wrong."