SBJ/19980525/This Week's Issue

A horse of a different color

The crowd stirred a bit at Los Alamitos Race Course as Leinster Connection, a $2,500 quarter horse, won the first race on a recent Saturday night.

But that same crowd was roaring 10 minutes later as lightweight boxer Rex Saldana knocked Frank Silva off his feet with a punch to the head in the second round.

Saldana was not the only one to score a knockout May 16.

The Orange County, Calif., racetrack, which is suffering from the industrywide problem of declining attendance, was able attract 3,240 customers — a 38 percent increase over the average Saturday night crowd — staging six fights between quarter-mile races, said Jeff True, director of marketing.

True said he could not think of another promotion that had had such an impact on attendance.

"This percentage increase is more than double what we'll get when we have a T-shirt promotion," he said. "And doing this is about the same price."

True spends $15,000 to give everyone at the track a free T-shirt, and he spent $16,000 to hire boxing promoter Roy Englebrecht to put on the card of four-round fights. Englebrecht was hired to stage four fight nights this year, after one "Rumble at the Races" last year increased attendance by 33 percent.

The fights are bringing out fans even though the boxers are unknown.

"These are young fighters making their professional debut," Englebrecht said. The boxers are paid $450 each.

Englebrecht believes the next three fight nights — to take place within the next three months — will draw even bigger crowds as the nights grow warmer. He is already talking to Los Alamitos about adding more ringside seats after selling out 270 seats around the ring for $5 each Saturday.

Englebrecht is also talking to other tracks, including Bay Meadows and Golden Gate in the San Francisco area, about staging fights between races.

"Horse racing needs to grow their attendance and this is what boxing can do," he said.

Craig Dado, marketing director at Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles County, said he has considered holding boxing events at the famed racetrack.

"There is clearly a correlation between boxing fans and racing fans," Dado said. For one thing, both kinds like to bet, he said.

But boxing events with little-known fighters and scantily clad ring girls "would not fly with our turf club members," Dado said. However, if the track could get Oscar De La Hoya to spar a few rounds at a reasonable price, he said, "we'd be all over it."

True said the best thing about the boxing promotion is that it attracted new, young fans to the track, whose fan base is aging.

"I think this is a great idea," said Irene Carabajal, 24, a boxing fan who dragged her husband, Eddie, 26, to see the fights. The Carabajals said they got a chance to bet on some of the races between fights.

Frank Cordray, 31, said: "I usually don't come to the races. The boxing is the only reason I'm here."

But not everyone thought it was a great idea. Don Barnett, an old-time horse player, said he likes to watch boxing on cable on Tuesday nights, but "I don't like it mixed."

Barnett said the boxing distracts him from his handicapping.

"If you go to a boxing match," he said, "you don't see horses running around there, do you?"

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