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Hovdey: Fair horsemen share stage with big-top trainers

Friday, September 8th, 2017

“Where’s the Ferris wheel?”

The question was not out of line. Eddie Truman stood in the long, skinny Los Alamitos walking ring and scanned the horizon while waiting to give his jock a leg up in the second race on opening day. All he saw were comfortable suburbs, a couple of mega-churches, and big-box stores in the distance.

The answer, which Truman knew full well, was 25 miles to the northeast, where the L.A. County Fair was in full-throated action in Pomona, featuring La Grande Wheel XL, standing 130 feet tall with 36 air-conditioned gondolas. Until 2015, a key part of that action was also horse racing, which had entertained fair fans since 1922.

But a new generation of county fair management saw no potential for 21st century growth in their Fairplex Park racing niche, just as the owners of Hollywood Park found a better bottom-line use for their vast racing property. Within a year of each other, both were out of the racing business.

Hollywood Park exists no longer in any form, save the names of a few stakes races picked up by Santa Anita and Del Mar. However, the political clout of the L.A. County Fair was able to convert its dates into cash. Los Alamitos – better known as the finger in the leaking dike of the Southern California calendar – stepped up to run the fair’s racing and pays the county fair for the privilege. Somehow, it did not seem to make a difference that Los Alamitos is located in Orange County, just east of the L.A. County line.

“Pomona is where a lot of people had a chance to win an allowance race with a claiming horse, or maybe a little stakes,” Truman said. “Now us gyps have got no chance. You’re running every day against Baffert and Hollendorfer, because those guys train right here.”

Truman is hardly a gyp, and his comment was made with a resigned smile and a shrug, aware that he was stating the obvious. The quaint Pomona program of a small stakes nearly every day – with names like the Bustles and Bows, the Bangles and Beads, and the Gateway to Glory – has been transformed. Los Alamitos offers maiden races worth $45,000, twice the value of many old Fairplex stakes – along with a smattering of similarly endowed allowance races.

Major stables and leading riders who once found it easy to skip the Fairplex dates find they are drawn to the Los Alamitos purses. The eight races on opening day were won by eight different trainers, with the names of Molly Pearson, Rafael DeLeon, and Jerry Picconi shoulder to shoulder with Neil Drysdale, Peter Miller, Jeff Bonde, Mark Glatt, and Eoin Harty.

Hector Palma was king of the Los Alamitos Thoroughbred scene in the 1980s, when the track hosted a brief season under the banner of the Orange County Fair. Palma is still in action, and as Thursday’s Los Alamitos opener unfolded, the trainer looked up from his program, pretending to be surprised.

“Did you see this?” Palma said, addressing a gang of veterans gathered beneath of big screen monitor. “There is an allowance race today at Kentucky Downs for $140,000. We got a race here today for $14,000. That’s the problem here – we’re missing a zero.”

By now the industry realizes that Kentucky Downs offers purses like no other meet this side of Tokyo Race Course, with its year-round gaming money stuffed into purses over five choice racing days.

It is reasonable to expect owners, trainers, and jockeys to converge on the Downs from all corners of the North American scene, especially for a brace of races like the $200,000 Dueling Grounds Oaks and $350,000 Dueling Grounds Derby there on Sunday.

The West, however, has taken a pass. Of the 10 in the Oaks and the 11 in the derby, not one of them has shipped from the Left Coast. In fact, the only player from California will be Drayden Van Dyke, who rides Big Bend in the derby for Tom Proctor and Quebec in the Oaks for Kent Sweezey.

Van Dyke will be riding both horses for the first time, which is not as important as knowing how to ride the idiosyncratic Kentucky Downs course. After a tight first turn, there is a long backstretch run to a right hand bend, a sweeping downhill to the left, uphill to a slight kink left, then finally a downward piece to the finish.

“It’s really not that good to be on the rail,” Van Dyke said Friday, after riding there on Thursday. “I like it more in the middle of the track, or toward the outside. You come out of the first tight turn and stay straight to take that right bend – similar to Los Alamitos. When you’re going down the hill I lean back, get a little hand of mane and give them their head so if they bobble – and they bobble a lot on this course – they can take care of themselves. You don’t want to be in their way if they’re trying to keep their balance.

“If they’re not fit, they’ll definitely feel the uphill part. They’ll start breathing fire, and you will, too, trying to help. But once you get them up the hill, if you’ve got horse left you can kind of shoot away on that last little downhill part to the left before the wire.”

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Photo Credits:   Vassar Photography (Northern CA)  |  Benoit Photo (Southern CA)  |  Michael J. Marten (Southern CA)

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