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A CLOSER LOOK

Long Stretch

A Racetrack At 50

May 19, 2000|RENE LYNCH

The scent of freshly mowed grass fills the early morning air at Los Alamitos Race Course as the horses are put through their paces under the watchful eye of a few dozen racing fans.

In a matter of hours, the tranquil atmosphere will be replaced by bustling crowds as another race night gets underway at the popular Cypress racetrack. Celebrating its 50th year of quarter horse racing, the track is expected to produce an average nightly handle--or purse--of $1.3 million.

The 141-day season began in April and continues into December, featuring an average of 10 races a night. The first major race, the $400,000 Kindergarten Futurity for 2-year-olds, will be held Saturday.

The Los Alamitos Race Course opened 50 years ago in what was effectively the backyard of a Cypress ranch-style home owned by Frank Vessels.

In 1954, the track moved to its present location, east of Walker Street and near the border of Los Alamitos. It was taken over in 1996 by horse breeder Edward C. Allred, and a recent $25-million face lift has helped transform the facility.

In recent years, marketers have looked for ways to create a more upscale image of horse racing in an effort to attract new fans.

The crowd has averaged nearly 1,900 a night this season, up 9.4% from last year's figures, track officials said.

Fans come from all walks of life. Many sport cowboy hats. Some gamble away the night, trying to get rich. Others come to watch the horses, drink a beer and enjoy a Southern California evening outdoors.

Some, however, prefer a closer view.

Steve Saunders of Huntington Beach, for example, favors a position in the grandstand building in front of a mural of racehorses. There, he stares at a bank of TV sets showing live satellite broadcasts of horse races around the country.

Races at Los Alamitos are also simulcast throughout California and to about 200 locations around the world, including off-track betting parlors and other racetracks.

Evenings--up to six nights a week--the horses are off and running, blasting past the numbers board, racing toward the finish line.

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