Solano Seen as Part of Calif. Racing Solution

Racing at the Solano County Fair -- in recent years thought doomed because of expected redevelopment to the valuable property -- apparently won't be going anywhere for quite a while.

Joseph Barkett, the fairgrounds general manager for the Vallejo, Calif., venue, says Solano County has been part of serious negotiations with the other racing fairs to step in with a plan to fill Northern California's racing schedule should a void occur. Property owner Stockbridge Capital Partners, he noted, could raze Bay Meadows in San Mateo in the near future with the execution of a redevelopment project approved there.

The 11-day 2006 Solano racing meet began on July 12, less than three weeks after its fair board, followed by the county's board of supervisors, rejected a financing plan for a shopping complex/entertainment redevelopment project on the 150-acre site from the Virginia-based real estate company Mills Corp.

"The Solano County Fair horseracing meet is right back where it was," Barkett said. "More than that, the racing fairs are working closely and collaboratively on a plan to guarantee the future of racing in Northern California."

He said that owners of tracks such as Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita "are under tremendous pressure" because today's California property values make them expendable as racing venues.

"This may be a great opportunity for fairs because the fairs are publicly owned facilities," Barkett said. "Our purpose is a public purpose so we don't have the same kind of pressure."

Barkett said that the facilities that make up the fair circuit would need improvements in order to gain racing dates should they become available. But he noted that courses such as the one at Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa and Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton have already taken a number of steps in that direction.

"We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves," he said in talking about potential improvements such as track enlargements and installation of turf courses.

But compared to the cost of building a new racetrack such as Magna Entertainment's proposed state of the art facility in cross-county Dixon, "the fairs may be the best way to look," Barkett said.

Besides Solano, Alameda and Santa Rosa, the others under the umbrella of the California Authority of Racing Fairs are San Joaquin (Stockton), San Mateo (Bay Meadows), Humboldt (Ferndale) and Fresno.

Christopher Korby, executive director of CARF, confirmed that there are ongoing discussions but declined to discuss a specific plan.

"Fairs as a group recognize that racing in California is changing," he said, "and we intend to be a part of its future."

The Solano County Fairgrounds racetrack, situated in a prime commercial real estate area between a huge Six Flags Marine World amusement park and Interstate 80, could most assuredly attract further development interest. The county fair board and Mills had been in exclusive negotiations since September 2003.

But Barkett said, "Everything is off the table." Instead, the fair wants to concentrate on improving its racing facility and grounds.

"Sometimes working with what you have can be a lot less burdensome than building something new," he said.