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JOSEPH N. BELL

Powering Your Way Into Harness Racing

February 15, 1990|JOSEPH N. BELL

One of the truths about columnists that I have been unlearning for several years now is the myth of power.

I always believed that anyone with a column in a major newspaper would be inundated with invitations to mega-parties, power assignations and exotic offers to sell out. I imagined myself stiffing all of these offers with a stern little lecture about the sanctity and probity of the press.

So what happened?

Not much.

I'm as far from the Orange County social swim as I ever was, there are no assignations in view and not a single corporation has made me an offer that would give me an opportunity to deliver my sanctity speech.

So you can imagine how exciting it was when into this vacuum galloped Orange County's only horse racing track: the Los Alamitos Racing Assn.

Last November, I wrote a column that began: "I gamble whenever possible. . . ." A few days later, I received a funny letter from a man named Dick Feinberg, who is publicity director for harness racing at Los Alamitos track. Feinberg wrote that the gambling statement "naturally attracted my attention, and I'm here to uncomplicate your life." Enclosed were two passes to the race track and a parking sticker.

I reasoned that my speech didn't apply here because if I went, I'd probably give them a chunk of my money through the mutual windows because I know nothing about harness racing. Even so, it took a couple of months before I decided to use the tickets.

My oldest daughter and I went to Los Alamitos on a recent Tuesday.

The parking sticker didn't mean much since parking was free -- at least on this night -- and so was admission to the grandstand for senior citizens. But my passes were for the clubhouse, where my daughter and I had a pleasant dinner in a warm, glass-enclosed area that offered a full view of the track. We even had a little TV set on our table to watch a close-up of the action we could see at a distance through the window.

I'd never watched harness racing before and wasn't sure what to expect. Turns out that instead of sitting on the backs of horses, the jockeys -- who are called drivers in harness racing -- ride in little buggies behind the horses and go careening around the track in these rigs at a rather remarkable speed. Everything else is the same as thoroughbred racing; the programs and form sheets are full of the same unintelligible numbers that the clever visitor can supposedly translate into winning bets.

I had phoned Feinberg--at his suggestion--to tell him we were coming and he dropped by our table. He's an elfin type who talks as funny as he writes. He gave us a short course in harness racing which got away from me rather quickly. I just kept remembering Prof. Harold Hill in "The Music Man" telling the townspeople they were in big "Trouble" when:

". . . Some outta-town Jasper tells about horse-race gamblin'.

"Not a wholesome trottin' race. No!

"But a race where they set down right on the horse!

"Like to see some stuck-up jockey-boy settin' on Dan Patch?

"Make your blood boil? Well I should say."

I got a sense of what the "trottin' " people are like when Feinberg introduced us to a man named Lloyd Arnold who was entertaining a party at the next table. Arnold is a tall, lanky, down-home sort of guy who last fall headed up a group that bought the floundering Los Alamitos track from Hollywood Park and is determined to turn it around.

For starters, the dining room has been spruced up considerably--a face lift planned for the whole plant--but the biggest difference, Arnold told me, is that he has brought in a retinue of experienced horses and drivers.

"We don't want non-professionals," he said. "We want our customers to be able to depend on our horses and drivers."

Arnold's own professional credentials are impressive.

He's a successful farmer and livestock owner from Iowa who took some of his horses to a racing meet in Chicago two decades ago and got hooked. He has bred two world champions, has twice been harness racing's Man of the Year and got into race track management in Sacramento in 1976. He had a previous three-year run at Los Alamitos (1979-82) and the track has been going downhill ever since. Now he comes back as an owner--the first time in 100 years in California that harness interests have owned their own track.

In addition to a total refurbishing of the racing plant, he has other plans too--office buildings, a new hotel, an upgraded golf course on the same site. When I suggested that the Los Alamitos track had been something of a dog and asked Arnold how he expected to turn it around, he smiled his down-home smile and said: "We know race track management. That's what we do."

I believed him. So the rest of the evening I tried to see how he was betting, not very successfully. He probably would have told me had I asked him, but it was more fun--if less financially rewarding--to try and sneak a look.

Actually, my daughter and I were doing rather well on our own until two of our horses ran into each other at the end of a triple on which we already had two winners. But a long shot came through for us in the last race, and we actually went home a little bit ahead, the first time that has happened to me at a race track for quite a while.

So I may try out my free parking pass again.

The harness racers will be around until late April, and I was just beginning to get the hang of handicapping those little buggies. Forget about all the numbers on the program. What you do is look for a horse's name that resembles the name of an old girlfriend or some event in your life that you remember warmly. Then bet the hell out of it.

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