The fairest of racetracks

Fried macaroni and cheese? What possibly possessed the creator of this arterial assault?

Updated: September 22, 2003, 11:44 PM ET
By Kenny Rice | Special to ESPN.com

Fried macaroni and cheese? What possibly possessed the creator of this arterial assault?

And if a corn dog is "hand-dipped," does that assure the diner that the batter didn't randomly collect on the wiener?

just how big was the turkey walking around on those "Deep-Fried Pound-and-Half Turkey Legs?"

The nutrition nightmare continues with booth after booth declaring "Funnel Cakes Glazed or Powdered" and "Texas Sized Onion Rings," and if you dare, "Piggly Fries."

I love county fairs and though not partaking, enjoy watching those indulging in this gastronomic gauntlet along the midway of the Los Angles County Fair in Pomona. It might seem like an overload in every sense of the senses, but so is the fair itself.

The L.A. Fair is the biggest county fair around and the fifth largest of all fairs and festivals in North America. There is enough food here to feed over a million people, and that's what they'll have before it wraps up at the end of the month -- over 1.3 million fair goers.

And the there are the rides: Tilt O'Whirls, roller coasters, bumper cars and an assortment of others that will spin, toss or jostle you around. Interesting still are their locations, very near the stands offering deep fried and sugar extreme dishes that can barely be digested before you hop aboard.

I have passed them all for "La Grand Wheel," the largest transportable Ferris Wheel in the land, six stories or so at the top. From there is a magnificent view of the 500 acres of fair grounds, and more importantly, of what the locals proudly say is the biggest little track in the nation, Fairplex.

Fairplex is the gem of the successful California fair racing circuit, with a daily handle of over $5.7 million last year. The place where there is a stakes every day of the 17-day meeting, with two on the final day. Over $4 million in purses is on the line.

To understand the attraction of Fairplex racing,you must to study the history of the track, which is now in its 65th year of racing. When pari-mutuel wagering was legalized in California in 1933, the Pomona track was the first in Southern California to seize the opportunity and throw open the windows and bring in the tellers for Thoroughbred racing. It introduced generations to the sport as fathers and mothers brought their kids, who then brought their own children later on to watch some races and enjoy the rest of the festivities.

"I remember coming here as a boy with my brother Warren," recalls legendary trainer Mel Stute, whose brother also followed the same career path. "We would get tickets to the fair at our school and come for the rides and the cotton candy and also make it over to watch the races. I thought then, 'Boy this is what I want to do, train these horses.' This is a special place for a lot of us old-timers."

No trainer has won more races at Fairplex than that boy who grew up just down the road from the fair grounds, and 76-year-old Mel Stute is still winning here. He's been in the winner's circle over 170 times and counting. Appropriately he is the first inductee into the newly formed Fairplex Racing Hall of Fame.

"It fills a void for trainers and horses between Del Mar and Oak Tree," Stute explains. "I've done well here because I had it all to myself for a long time. When it was a half-mile track, Mr. (Charlie) Whittingham and some of the others wouldn't think about coming here."

Eventually they came around, but even so, Stute kept winning after the track was expanded a five-eighths of a mile oval in 1985. "The Bull Ring", as it is affectionately called, presents a challenge with tight turns that can send a rider from the rail to the grandstand in seconds with the slightest miscalculation.

And then there is the challenge of handicapping it all. "It's as open a handicap division as anywhere," says track announcer Trevor Denman from his perch on top of the grandstand, one that puts him on eye level with those riding "La Grand Wheel."

Denman feels there are more variables here than most tracks. "Horses come from the north, from Arizona, New Mexico and then there are those up from Del Mar running fourth or fifth in good company. Now we can see if they can move up. I'd say racing here is as competitive as 90 percent of the tracks out there."

Sorting through the past performances in some of these bull ring specials can make you feel as if you've gobbled two of everything at the concession stands and leaped into the front car of the roller coaster. A fair experience? Never. It's on a grand scale here.