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Fairplex Park Hopes Winter Is Better Bet

July 10, 1986|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

POMONA — Although the first harness racing season since 1970 at the county fairgrounds ended last month with a deficit and disappointing attendance figures, Fairplex Park officials say they are eager to begin anew on Nov. 4.

In hopes of drawing larger crowds, track officials say they will introduce afternoon harness racing during the six-week winter season, which runs through Dec. 13.

Meanwhile, those who run Fairplex Park--the new name for the race track at Los Angeles County Fairgrounds--say that the season that began on April 22 attracted steadily increasing audiences and that the closing week was the track's best.

However, for the nine-week season, the average nightly attendance was 2,810 and the average nightly handle--the amount of money bet--was $363,524, significantly less than the average 5,000 fans and $500,000 handle that Fairplex manager Ralph Hinds had said would be needed to break even.

"We had a positive response locally and developed a new clientele," Hinds said. "But we were disappointed in that we were unable to draw many people from Los Angeles and many of the fans who supported harness racing at Los Alamitos."

Ken Valach, vice president of finance for Fairplex, said that final figures were not available, but that the Fairplex organization was prepared to handle a financial loss in its first season.

"Our biggest problem was identity," Valach said. "We put on a big advertising campaign, but it takes time for people to get used to us being here."

Favorable Survey Results

He said that a patrons surveyed rated both the races and the Fairplex staff highly. The survey also showed that most patrons came from the San Bernardino and Riverside areas, which will be targeted in future advertising campaigns.

Harness racing was reintroduced in Pomona after a 15-year absence and a three-year legislative battle to keep the sport alive in Southern California and to keep the Pomona facility in use throughout the year.

Fairplex's two short seasons--April to June and November and December--fill gaps between harness racing meets in Los Alamitos and Sacramento, which industry spokesmen said is necessary to maintain patrons' interest throughout the year.

The sport, which has its roots in the East and is popular in the Midwest, was introduced in Southern California at the Pomona fairgrounds in 1922. It began declining in popularity in the 1950s and ended in Pomona in 1970, when Los Alamitos opened.

Harness racing faces competition from the more popular Thoroughbred and quarterhorse races that go on most of the year at larger tracks such as Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar.

Because the crowds in Pomona were smaller than predicted during the early weeks, Fairplex subsidized the purse--the amount of money that goes to race winners, based on the amount of money that is bet.

But in midseason, the purse was reduced by 20%, and consequently, some owners took their stables to greener pastures in the Midwest, where harness racing continues throughout the year.

However, most of the 1,120 horses that began the season in Pomona remained, and Paul Blumenfeld, operator of the 20-horse Blumenfeld Stables, said that he was pleased with Fairplex's first season and plans to return in November.

"I think they're going to make it," he said. "It takes time for people to learn when they don't know how to bet. You could tell they were just feeling it out at first.

"The crowds were good, and you could see there were more new people coming all the time," Blumenfeld said. "Pomona would be a decent place to race if people would start gambling."

Valach said that although Fairplex was refurbished for harness racing, it would not give patrons adequate protection at night during cold months. That is the main reason for holding daytime meets in November and December, he said.

Food Sales Good

Chuck Giordano, spokesman for C & C Concessions Inc., which provided food service, also was pleased about the first season and optimistic about the next. He said that sales improved steadily throughout the season, from popcorn in the stands to more elegant dining at Top of the Park, the clubhouse restaurant.

"It was like starting a new business, it just takes time to build," Giordano said. "Our per capita sales were above projections, and the Top of the Park got so popular that our kitchen wasn't big enough to handle some of the crowds."

Valach said that harness racing will be heavily advertised during the Los Angeles County Fair, which is expected to draw 1.4 million people during its run from Sept. 11 to Sept. 28.

He said that 250,000 people are expected to turn out for Thoroughbred racing at the fair, and many of them may return for harness racing in November.

Sid Robinson, Fairplex media relations manager, said weather is a big factor in attendance, and the increase during the final weeks might be attributed to warm June nights.

"There's a market for the daytime customer," Robinson said. "A lot of people have nothing to do in the daytime. Besides, there are so many competing nighttime sporting events, especially on television. You could always see the difference in attendance when basketball was on."

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