POMONA — It has been neck-and-neck all the way, from the earliest legislative efforts in 1983 to allow harness racing back into the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, right up to the hairbreadth opening last Tuesday night.
Now industry officials anxiously await the first week's attendance and betting figures, which they say will be an important early indicator of whether the nine-week racing season can survive against heavy odds.
Paint was still wet and forklifts were still unloading supplies for concessions in the colorfully renovated grandstand when Tuesday's 6,793 free guests began arriving. They wagered $560,772 at the betting windows.
The figures elated park and racing officials, who said Fairplex needs a nightly average of 5,000 fans and a handle (the amount of money bet) of $500,000 to break even in its first season.
But on Wednesday--a colder night that followed the afternoon opening of Thoroughbred racing at Hollywood Park in Inglewood--Fairplex drew only 2,049 paying fans and a handle of $276,919.
Manager Predicted Slow Start
"If we start out low, that's not going to be the end of the world," said Fairplex manager Ralph Hinds, who predicted low attendance on early-season weeknights. "The weekend will give us a better indication of how it's going to go. It would be a big disappointment not to make it, but we're betting on it. We think this is a good marriage between harness racing and the facility that it needs to survive."
The mood was festive on opening night as thousands clustered in the grandstand's center near the finish line, leaving empty the more exclusive clubhouse seating area and the vast, comfortable indoor lounges.
In a departure from the usual track ambiance, the sounds were the last-minute whir of electric drills getting fixtures in place, the smell was distinctively fresh paint, and the sights were the soft pastels blended by a sensitive decorator.
"It's like history, sort of," said Fran Bardwell, who came from his home in Long Beach "just to be a first nighter, and because it's free."
"Can you believe this? This old place? It's beautiful," said Lucy Perkins of Pomona, who was a jubilant winner in the first race.
'Better Than a Slot Machine'
"Yeah, it's a lot of fun. Like an Exacta, you only pay $3 and if you know what you're doing, that's pretty good odds. Better than a slot machine," said Burton Cleavenger of Los Angeles, who said he follows harness racing because "it's more my speed."
"This whole scene's fantastic," said stable owner Paul Blumenfeld, who entered three horses opening night. "It's risky financially, but you can't beat the excitement."
The revival of harness racing in Pomona is the result of a three-year legislative battle to keep alive a sport that was strong in Southern California for about 30 years until the 1950s. The sport began at the Pomona fairgrounds in 1922 and ended there in 1970, when the Los Alamitos race track opened and the Legislature decreed that harness racing should be a nighttime sport.
Some of the loss of popularity has been attributed to the rise of Thoroughbred racing, whose sponsors oppose extended harness racing seasons on the grounds that they would "oversaturate" Southern California's market for horse racing and parimutuel betting.
Only Los Alamitos remained after Del Mar and Hollywood Park gave up harness racing in recent years. In the season that ended earlier this month, attendance at Los Alamitos dropped almost 18% from last year and its average handle of $754,573 represented a drop of 8.5%.
Prize Purses Are Smaller
The defection of fans is sometimes attributed to purses that are smaller than those for Thoroughbred racing, resulting in a loss of big bettors and therefore some of the excitement.
Industry officials say harness racing requires continuity to attract fans, and its future in Southern California may depend on its success in Pomona, where the county fair race track lies dormant most of the year. Now renamed, refurbished and open for a wide variety of activities throughout the year, Fairplex will have 15 weeks of racing in two short seasons that will augment racing at Los Alamitos. The California harness circuit also includes Sacramento, where racing will begin shortly after the current Pomona season ends June 21.
State Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino) submitted bills calling for 25-week seasons in Pomona in 1983 and 1984. The first bill died early in committee and the second was vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian, who objected to the length of the season, calling it detrimental to all racing. Both bills were opposed by the Thoroughbred racing industry, including the officials of Santa Anita Park race track in Arcadia.
The bill that now permits two short seasons a year was signed by the governor last September. It was sponsored by then-Assemblyman Richard Alatorre (D-Los Angeles) and co-sponsored by Ayala. The current season will continue five nights a week--Tuesdays through Saturdays--until June 21, and the next will run from Nov. 4 to Dec. 15.