The dog days of summer are here, and that means it's time for the tight turns, full fields and food on a stick that mark thoroughbred racing at Fairplex Park.
With Friday's opening of the Los Angeles County Fair comes 17 straight days of racing with a stakes every day. After a rich 2003 season that saw a huge pick six carryover to start the meet and the highest single-day handle in Fairplex history, purses will be higher than ever in 2004. Twelve of the 17 stakes have seen their prize money raised 20 percent, from $50,000 to $60,000.
The meet's capstone race will be the $100,000 Ralph M. Hinds Pomona Handicap on Sunday Sept. 26. The richest races of the season will be the Barretts Debutante for 2-year-old fillies and the Barretts Juvenile for 2-year-old colts and geldings, to be run Saturday and Sunday Sept. 18 and 19. The Barretts races are each worth an estimated $120,000.
This year's jockey talent will have a different look from 2003, with newly arrived faces and familiar returning ones. Matt Garcia, who has won 143 races at Fairplex, will return after a one-year absence. Veteran riders Kerwin John, who has a new agent and has seen a surge of success of late, and Garret Gomez, who is coming off a long layoff, will ride the meet. Newcomers to watch include the young Puerto Rican Alex Bisono and the young Cajun Casey Fusilier.
But for now they are all mere challengers to the fair's undisputed riding champion Martin Pedroza, who it has been suggested could get around the short Fairplex track blindfolded. Pedroza injured his shoulder injury earlier this year, but is at full strength just in time for the meet he annually dominates. He has won the meet title six times, including the last five. He is the all-time leading rider at the fair with 380 victories. No active Fairplex rider even comes close to that total. And the rich figure to get richer as he rides 10 times on opening day, with six of his mounts morning-line favorites.
Last year's training title was shared by Doug O'Neill and Wesley Ward, who both figure to be near the top of the standings this season. Ward, who last year managed 10 wins in a mere 21 starts (a stunning 48 percent victory rate), will send Razen Hazen in the opening day $60,000 Foothill Stakes and will saddle Sanger in Saturday's $60,000 Phil D. Shepherd Stakes. Garcia will ride both horses.
O'Neill, who is coming off a training title at Del Mar and is now a training title favorite at every Southern California meet, will saddle French-bred 5-year-old Stratus in the Shepherd Stakes.
The field for the Shepherd, at 1 1/16 miles for 3-year-olds and up, in post-position order: Verkade, Pedroza, 119 pounds; Slew City Citadel, Joe Steiner, 117; Sigfreto, Omar Figueroa, 117; Stratus, Gomez, 117; Anziyan Royalty, David Nuesch 119; American Fury, O. Vergara, 117; Six Numbers, Goncalino Almeida, 117; Night Patrol, John, 117; Manhattan Express, Bisono, 117; Sanger, Garcia, 117.
Ray Thomas also had 10 wins last year and took the training title for mixed-breed conditioners. Thomas, whose barn is a virtual petting zoo of Quarter horses, mules and Appaloosas, will waste no time in defending his title. He has two mules--Sis-Q Lena and Sis-Q Skipa Libby, in the fair's opening race on Friday, and two more mules--Chinook Pass and Sis-Q Monde--in Saturday's first.
The weekend forecast calls for a mostly sunny Saturday with a high of 93 degrees and a sunny Sunday with a high of 91.
First post time is 12:30 on weekdays and 12 noon on Saturday and Sunday, /