The California State Fair board plans to swap its Thoroughbred meet this summer for harness racing.
If approved by the California Horse Racing Board, the switch would end 37 years of racing tradition at the annual State Fair in Sacramento.
"I'm very surprised," said Charles Dougherty, deputy director of California Thoroughbred Trainers and the group's Northern region representative. "When I first heard about it, I thought it was one of those wild backstretch rumors. But it turned out to be true."
Proposed on a one-time experimental basis, the plan would showcase the trotters and pacers at the fair, which expects to draw an estimated audience of 1 million. It would also significantly bolster the debut of the new Sacramento Harness Association, which assumes the Cal Expo lease on Sept. 23.
"We're absolutely thrilled," said Kim Hankins, executive director of the California Harness Horsemen's Association. "This truly is a landmark."
The proposal is before the CHRB's dates committee on March 7 and may be forwarded to the full board at its March 24 meeting.
The State Fair expands to four weeks this summer. Running its own harness meet would allow it to offer live racing throughout its run. Under the plan, the State Fair harness meet would start on its opening day Aug. 12 and run through Labor Day, Sept. 5. The fair would offer daytime simulcasts of Thoroughbred racing followed by the live twi-night harness program, starting at 4:30 p.m.
Sacramento's Thoroughbred dates were set for Aug. 24 through Labor Day. If it gets the OK for harness dates, the State Fair can lease its Thoroughbred dates to another fair association, such as Alameda County in Pleasanton or Sonoma County in Santa Rosa.
"The first question is what facility," Dougherty said. "Some would be more acceptable than others. We're still in the fact-minding mode."
From a fan standpoint, the idea met with immediate shock and dismay.
"My friends and I have box seats we buy every year for the past 20 years and thoroughly enjoy the live and simulcast racing," said Chuck Hecht of Sacramento. "We have been fans for over 50 years. Nobody asked us about this capricious change."
Headed by former CHRB chairman Ralph Scurfield, the SHA replaces Capitol Racing as the operator of Cal Expo's harness meet, which runs 10 months a year from late September through July.
However, Capitol has proposed starting a new harness meet this fall at Fairplex, site of the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. That request is to be addressed at the March 7 dates committee meeting.
With little local promotion by Capitol and problems with its simulcast signal at nighttime rival Los Alamitos Racecourse, the year-round harness meet has suffered dramatic decreases in attendance and handle. Harness horsemen have seen their purses cut by 30% in the last year.
"This is our experimental concept because of the frailness of the harness industry," said Cal Expo racing director David Elliott. "Our board decided to step in and try to get this industry back on its feet."
The State Fair is less dependent on horse racing revenue than other California racing fairs, which get up to 50% of their annual income from live racing. Historically, harness racing had been part of the annual festivities, dating back to the first State Fair held in Sacramento in 1855. But the meet switched to Thoroughbreds and other breeds when the fairgrounds moved to its current Cal Expo location in 1968.