Anne M. Eberhardt

More at Stake for California Fair Season

This summer's circuit includes new revenue-raising stops at Golden Gate Fields.

It was more than business as usual as the California fair racing season commenced its annual run in the northern half of the state on June 18. This year's summer schedule includes a couple of stops at Golden Gate Fields, whose contributions may be vital as the region's racing circuit adjusts to the loss of Bay Meadows.

The season began encouragingly at the San Joaquin County Fair in Stockton, where the opening day on-track handle was up a reported 68% for a 10-race program -- two more races than for its opening card in 2008. The Stockton meet, which runs through June 28, returned to its traditional opening slot on the calendar after operating in September last year under a revised schedule. It was the first time in 75 years that racing at Stockton did not coincide with the actual fair.

"It was a one-year experiment that turned out to be just that," said Chris Korby, the executive director of the California Authority of Racing Fairs.

In the midst of the current economic recession, Korby is mindful that most tracks over the past several months are experiencing handle declines of roughly 10%. Still, he sees reason for optimism.

"I'm reasonably excited by our (horse) numbers," he said. "We're over capacity at Pleasanton and using temporary stalls, and we're very near capacity at Golden Gate. That's about 1,300 at Golden Gate and just under 700 at Pleasanton. Plus, we've got more than 350 at Stockton with more coming in."

There were 93 runners entered for the opening-day program and 110 were entered for the second day at the Stockton meet.

Korby said that the California fairs picked up numbers from Idaho due to a track closing and had an increase in the usual influx from Arizona.

"Some of them may not be competitive at some levels," he said of the Idaho imports, "but some of them will be. Our recruitment efforts are really paying off in Arizona. The Turf Paradise season dovetails so well with our schedule. They end in late spring and pick up again in the fall."

New to the CARF circuit this year is six weeks of racing at Golden Gate Fields. The Albany track completed nine consecutive months of racing June 14 as it filled the void left by the destruction of Bay Meadows. This summer, Golden Gate will pick up the San Mateo County Fair dates, which were previously run at Bay Meadows, on Aug. 12-23. A four-week stand will be held Sept. 10-Oct. 4.

Profits from the Golden Gate meets will go to CARF, Korby said, with most of the revenue targeted for improvements to the racing facility at the Alameda County fairgrounds in Pleasanton. The track eventually is seen as the replacement for Bay Meadows, but extension of racing dates there depends on funding for a turf course (an estimated $4 million to $5 million) plus storm water abatement, stabling expansion and other improvements (about $3 million). Grandstand refurbishing and installation of a synthetic track are also on the wish list.

"The money will be used for investment in the future of the racing industry," Korby said. "I see this year, next year and very possibly the year thereafter as transition years for California racing."

He said CARF has not yet projected how much money can be generated by the Golden Gate meets, but thought it would provide at least seed money to get the Pleasanton projects going. Whether Golden Gate will operate during the summer season again next year is still under negotiation. He said that Alameda County is also looking to the state for  possible funding or a loan.

"I think horse racing legislation is on the back burner right now (in Sacramento)," Korby said. "Depending on what happens with the state budget, there is some prospect for financing or loans to get started. Otherwise, we're looking at a larger time frame."

Korby also noted the demise of Bay Meadows and the development plans forHollywood Park, as well as the potential sale of Santa Anita Park and Golden Gate by bankrupt owners Magna Entertainment Corporation. "If we don't start doing things a different way, we're going to see our beloved sport go over a cliff," he said.

Because they are less prone to development pressure than privately-owned tracks, "the fairs start to look like a better alternative for the future," he added.

Following reductions in the race week at Hollywood Park and Del Mar, the fairs will run five days a week this season rather than the usual six. Alameda County will run for three weeks at Pleasanton (July 1-19) after the conclusion of the Stockton meet, while the struggling Solano County meet at Vallejo will run for one week (July 22-26). The remainder of the circuit includes the Sonoma County Fair at Santa Rosa (July 29-Aug. 9), the Humboldt County Fair at Ferndale (Aug. 13-23), the California State Fair at Sacramento (Aug. 26-Sept. 7) and the Fresno County Fair (Oct. 7-18).