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all bets are on

Leisure: Odds are that Los Alamitos Race Course lures by convenience rather than luxury. But during quarter-horse season, the Cypress track is a sure thing for families and others with the winning formula.

May 21, 1997|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fred Rodgers stares at his Daily Racing Form with the same intensity boys save for skin magazines. When he finally looks up, it's to let you know that finding the right spot and marking your territory are important at the track.

It's good to be near the betting window. Be sure to have a view of the course. Make room for your buddies. And don't forget luck--get a spot that's real lucky. Once you found it, lay out your stuff. The form, tip sheets, handicapping notes and pens and pencils. Then consider the territory marked.

"You don't want to have to move around all the time or have a stranger elbow in," said Rodgers, an angular, somewhat stooped man with penetrating blue eyes. "Stay put and get comfortable. . . . Picking winners takes concentration."

He's an expert at this. Rodgers has been going to tracks all over the Southland for years. Del Mar, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park. That was when he was younger, though, and had the urge to hit the freeways. Rodgers, 71, now goes to the Los Alamitos Race Course in Cypress sometimes three or four times a week.

It's easy. Rodgers lives nearby in a three-bedroom home in Los Alamitos. He walks over with a friend or two around noon, uses satellite wagering for races on both coasts, then waits for the evening meet at "Los Al" to begin. There's usually a soda and hot dog dinner around 6. The races start at 7:15.

For Rodgers and others, the popularity of Los Al, a fixture in Orange County since 1951, can be traced to the convenience. The major tracks may seem like a fair hike for gamblers living in Cypress and surrounding cities.

But what they gain in ease they give up in luxury. The big courses, especially Del Mar and Santa Anita, are known for their stylishness and scale. Los Alamitos, even with a refurbishing in recent years that has improved its looks, is still considered dowdy and minor in comparison.

Does that distinction bother bettors? It doesn't seem to.

"Sure, I'd love to have padded benches everywhere and a big screen" raised high from the infield showing the races close-up like at the top tracks, said John Flores of Seal Beach. "But you don't expect it here. It's funky [but] fine for us."

Rodgers and his friend Herb Lewis, 64, of Stanton are on a betting bender at Los Alamitos, now in the early stages of its 142-night quarter-horse meeting.

Before Los Al got underway, they hit a pair of decent exactas (where you pick the first and second horse in order) and a couple of winners during the nine Hollywood Park races televised on the several screens at the course. Their wins put them ahead more than $100 each.

"We're not big bettors," said Lewis, who's tall but heavy, like a trucker with more of a taste for roadside diners than driving. "But we're pretty good at picking 'em. . . . We should bet bigger."

Rodgers gave him one of those "Don't jinx us" looks but then realized their luck had turned awhile back. They'd already dumped most of their earlier winnings while wagering on the first races on the Los Alamitos track.

"We've fallen apart," Rodgers lamented. "Shoulda quit after the hot dogs."

"No way, it'll come back," Lewis put in.

"Maybe. I'll hang in there with you if you do."

Other bettors--mostly men, mostly middle-aged--were already gathering up their forms and heading for the short lines where attendants with the bored detachment of Las Vegas dealers were taking bets and handing out stubs. Rodgers glanced at the time on the big tote board. Four minutes until the post. Have to hurry to figure things out.

"I'm going with Merlot, five across [$5 each on the win, place and show bets]," Lewis announced.

"I'll follow you on that," Rodgers said, then added, "We help each other out [with the handicapping]. I didn't figure that race out, but maybe he did."

Lewis hadn't. Merlot finished out of the money, behind the longshot winner, Fadwah Marchoy, which paid $16 on a $2 win ticket. Both men shrugged and went back to the racing form and its performance histories and handicapping tips.

*

For Flores, 31, Los Al is a family experience. He brings his wife, Dolores, and their daughters, Anna, 9, and Maggie, 7, and all but camps out in the twilight on benches near the finish line. The girls eat junk food and scamper on the asphalt while Flores studies his newspaper tip sheets. Dolores Flores watches.

"He's usually pretty good," she said with the sigh of the ever-watchful. "But he does like to gamble. . . . I really have to keep an eye on him in Las Vegas or Laughlin. The girls are very good, but I have to make sure they don't bother the other people."

On this evening, nobody seems to notice the sisters as they try to amuse themselves. Even when they run between rows, most bettors barely glance up from their programs and forms, scribbling arcane notations about this horse and that race. Everyone hopes they have the perfect formula for riding above the odds.

Flores knows he does. "I have my girls around," he said. "They bring me luck."

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