Plans for constructing a new turf course at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, CA, were given approval Jan. 7.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors unanimously endorsed the $3 million addition to the track as part of the county fair's 2003 budget. It will be the first of its kind at any of the state's eight county fair on-site racing facilities. (Magna Entertainment-owned Bay Meadows is leased for the San Mateo County Fair.)
The turf course is to be installed inside of the track's one-mile dirt oval. A popular nine-hole public golf course on the track infield will have to be slightly reconfigured when the racecourse is in use.
Preliminary work has already started, said fair manager Jim Moore, who hopes to have the new grass course planted this fall so it will be ready for racing at the 2004 meeting, which begins annually in late July and currently runs for 12 racing days.
A 10-year, $1.5 million loan from the California Division of Fairs and Expositions has been obtained, Moore said, with the rest of the cost paid for through $3.4 million in fair revenues collected for facility improvements.
The move, he said, will pay big dividends in the future.
"Horse racing is a very big event for the fair and we want it to stay that way," Moore said. "Trainers and owners in Northern California have had a pretty strong concern about the lack of turf racing on the fair circuit. They are forced to go down south to enter their horses, where they often don't come back because they get claimed or stay down there to compete."
He said the fair has been faced with a Thoroughbred shortage and in recent years has been forced to add more "emerging breed" races – such as Quarter Horses, Arabians mules and Appaloosas – to their programs in order to fill them out. Carding a turf race or two each day can help ease the shortage while keeping racing quality strong and public interest high.
Racing accounts for more than 40 percent of $8 million in annual revenue generated by the Sonoma County Fair and its meeting is considered the most successful on the circuit. But Santa Rosa experienced declines in attendance and handle last year.
"With simulcasting and other options, there's generally a lot more competition for the attention of racing fans," Moore noted. "You either step it up a notch or consider getting out of the business."
One or two of the racing fairs are considering doing the latter, he acknowledged. The turf course, he said, is the Sonoma County Fair's commitment to its racing future.
"Northern California is in flux right now with the Bay Meadows lease ending and some of the fairs considering their (racing) futures, and we would be interested" in potentially increasing dates, Moore said. "But (the turf course) is something (the fair board) has talked about for a number of years and really got serious about the past couple of years."
Chris Korby, executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs, applauded the move.
"We think our racing invites turf courses and it shows the confidence we have in our future," he said.