Harness racing opened for its second year in Pomona on Friday, and this time the opening had the look of a winner--at least when compared to last year.
For one thing, the paint was dry. For another, 4,000 people paid to get into Fairplex Park, the racing area at the county fairground, and then spent $460,000 betting on the trotters.
None of that was true when harness racing opened last year after a 15-year hiatus. On opening night in 1986, painters were still at work when the gates opened. Fans were admitted free. They wandered, confused, amid the painters' ladders and tarps, sidestepping forklifts that were still putting benches and supplies in place when the first race was announced. Many of the food concessions lacked food and many of the parimutuel windows lacked customers.
By the end of the two short meets last year, one in the spring and one in November and December, Fairplex had lost money.
Average nightly attendance at the meets was about half the 5,000 that Fairplex officials hoped for. Weather in early spring and late fall was too cold for many fans.
This year, harness racing will continue for an unbroken 13 weeks, thus avoiding colder weather.
"It takes time for people to know we're here, and then it takes time for them to learn what to do when they get here," said Paul Blumenfeld, operator of the 35-horse Blumenfeld Stables. "It's looking better now."
"This isn't like any other kind of racing," said Herman Stefford of Pomona, who recalled being taken to harness races in the Midwest as a child more than 60 years ago.
"Trotters go at a slower pace, and so do the people who watch them, I guess," Stefford said.
The scene around him was reminiscent of the country fairs of his childhood. Youngsters used railings around the grandstands as gymnastic equipment. Enclosed areas inside the grandstand smelled of popcorn and cigars. Fans bunched close to the finish line to cheer, then dispersed between races.
"I just kind of like this atmosphere," said Allen Davis of Upland. "It's like the old fairs used to be, more relaxing."
Mary Ann and Lester Deerly of Glendora were the first to occupy a special area for handicapped people. Others filled it before the first race.
"This is one of the few places I can get into," said Mary Ann Deerly, who has been confined to a wheelchair for three years. "I can't get into church or theaters, but we can come here for an evening's entertainment."
Once a standard feature of county fairs, harness racing declined in the 1950s as thoroughbred racing grew in popularity. In 1970, the state Legislature decided that harness racing should be a night sport, and the fairs gave it up in favor of the thoroughbreds.
Last year, however, Fairplex won a three-year legislative battle to keep its track in use at other times in the year with harness racing, which has maintained a following at several other California tracks.
"We paid our dues last year. We're happy, real happy," said Fairplex spokesman Sid Robinson when he looked at last weekend's attendance figures.
"Now, pray for lots of warm nights."