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New Day Dawns at the Races : Gambling Gets Dose of Glamour at Ventura's Swank Derby Club


A Hollywood couple is doing Sunday brunch at the Island View Room, an off-track-betting parlor disguised as a restaurant in Ventura's fancy new $5.7-million Derby Club. Horse-racing novices, the couple feels comfortable with the bloody Marys, the fresh flowers on the linen tablecloth and the advertised vista of Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands. But the banks of flashing TVs and the intimidating parimutuel windows--not to mention the roomful of screaming adults--is about to induce a panic attack.

"So, you go up to this guy in the window and say the name of the race track first, then the amount you bet, then which race it's for, then the horse's name--no, the horse's number--then you say either win, place or show depending on how you're going to vote--why is this so hard?" casting agent Pat Melton says, breathlessly rehearsing for her maiden trip to the parimutuel window.

Timidly, Melton places her bet for the first race at Santa Anita Park: "Santa Anita," she says in a conspiratorial whisper, as if she's dealing with a bookie. "I'll take the fourth horse . . . no, that's not right . . . you can tell I'm new at this," she says to the clerk, who laughs and patiently leads her through the betting process.

Meanwhile, Melton's boyfriend, character actor Dennis Lipscomb, sweats bullets at their window table. While attempting to comprehend the ever-changing data on the half-dozen TV monitors ringing the ceiling, he is also attempting to decipher the hieroglyphics contained in the Daily Racing Form, the handicapper's bible. But when the track announcer blares "five minutes to post time," Lipscomb closes his eyes and picks a horse--any horse.

After fumbling through a $6 across-the-board bet at the parimutuel window, Lipscomb sits down next to Melton, thoroughly impressed with himself.

"Ten minutes ago I didn't know what across-the-board meant," he says, sipping an ice tea and relaxing for the first time. "This is more exciting than I thought. I'm getting a buzz."

A moment later, a bell sounds, starting the race. Eyes riveted on a tabletop TV, Lipscomb unexpectedly finds himself cheering as if the fate of planet Earth depended on the performance of an animal named Cardinal Peak.

As Melton's horse fights for last place, she buries her face in Lipscomb's arm and is nearly decapitated when he jumps up to celebrate Cardinal Peak's second-place finish. The combined place-and-show payoff earn him a net profit of 60 cents.

"What? I went through this for 60 lousy cents?" Lipscomb says. "Imagine if I'd bet some real money. Twenty bucks, say. I'm going to have to slow down. All this excitement could kill me."

Leaving after the eighth race to beat the traffic, Lipscomb and Melton are a few dollars poorer but definitely buzzed by their first day at the off-track races.

"I really had a lot of fun for somebody who didn't win a race," Melton says. "This place is really cool."

Gambling in Ventura County went uptown last month with the opening of the Derby Club. Rising above Surfers Point like a Moorish castle, the salmon-colored stucco monolith pulls in horse players unwilling to make the long drive to Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, but it has also been attracting another demographic: culturally deprived citizens who want to chase rainbows, dine and socialize in a clean, action-packed environment free of children and tobacco smoke.

"We're getting a lot of people we've never seen before," a staff member said. "Housewives, suburbanites, couples on dates."

The state-owned Derby Club replaces a decrepit complex, also at Seaside Park in the county fairgrounds. While the new 36,500-square-foot club is attractive enough to become a popular date destination, the old facility was too disreputable for social engagements. A complex of three small building, it drew 800 bettors a day since opening in 1987 but lacked the view and the panache to appeal to the Sunday brunch crowd.

"The Derby Club is 10 times better," said Karen Rosen, a Westlake accountant. "We were squeezed into the old place."

Legal in California since 1987, satellite wagering has been a wildly successful alternative to the racetracks. Last year, the state's 33 Watch and Wager facilities had a combined attendance of 4.8 million, producing a betting total of $1.4 billion, with $130 million of that going to the state.

The Derby Club broke out of the gates with an average daily betting total of just under $200,000, putting it in the top half of the state's satellite facilities. Weekend attendance often reaches a capacity of 1,200, a booming business that provokes grumblings among regulars, who feel the state should have built a larger facility.

"This is already too small," said Dick Daries of Simi Valley.

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