Horse racing's venerable merry-go-round, better known as the Northern California Fair Circuit, once again is on its dizzying summertime whirl through the county fairs of the Golden State. From the isolated dairy farming community of Ferndale on the north coast, where nearby giant redwoods oft are shrouded in fog from the Pacific Ocean, to the sweltering communities of the agriculturally rich Central Valley, casual fans, horse lovers, ranchers, and their families are making the annual pilgrimage to local fairgrounds for an afternoon of carnival rides, livestock judging, and live horse racing. At Ferndale, site of the Humboldt County Fair, the townsfolk are staging a race meeting on their half-mile oval for the 108th straight year. And at Pleasanton, home of the Alameda County Fair, horsemen are running their Thoroughbreds over a racing strip originally plowed from Spanish land-grant soil by pioneer settler Augustin Bernal in 1858. Other counties on the circuit--counties whose very names are redolent of early California history--will have hosted a brief run in the sun by summer's end: San Joaquin (racing since 1860)...Sonoma...San Mateo...Sacramento...Solano. But history of another kind is being recorded on the fair circuit these days, history that's making the record books and influencing the breed on a national level: * The great filly Spain, winner of the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), and $3,540,542 (more purse money than any other female on the American Turf to this day), competed first at Pleasanton and then Solano before breaking her maiden at the San Mateo fair on Aug. 22, 1999. * The gelding Cavonnier made his second career start at Pleasanton, tasted victory for the first time at Sonoma, won the El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and went on to the 1996 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), only to lose to Grindstone by an excruciating nose. * Casual Lies, destined to run second in the '92 Derby and third in the Preakness (gr. I), had been trailered north from Shelley Riley's Pleasanton barn to also break his maiden at first asking at bucolic Sonoma, a county better known for its wineries and apple orchards. He retired to a successful stud career in the Southern Hemisphere.
* Other noted stakes horses, including Eclipse winner Brown Bess, have caught the merry-go-round's brass ring. But the most lasting legacy of California's county fairs--often viewed as make-or-break locales for bottom-level claimers--may have been provided by an unheralded Cal-bred filly who raced on the circuit in 1973. Three years later in Kentucky, to the cover of Bold Bidder, she was to foal Spectacular Bid, subsequently proclaimed by his trainer "the greatest horse ever to look through a bridle," and ranked 10th by The Blood-Horse on its list of the 20th century's Top 100 Thoroughbreds. Briefly, here's the story of the largely forgotten filly who became his dam. After the death of William S. Gilmore, the San Francisco steel magnate and horseman who bankrolled construction of Golden Gate Fields, his widow and daughter continued operation of the family's Loma Rica Ranch near Palo Alto. In 1970, their mare Stop On Red (by To Market), who had been sent to the court of noted stayer Promised Land, dropped an unspectacular, plain-looking roan foal. Perhaps in a jocular moment, the Gilmore ladies named the filly 'Spectacular.' Spectacular surprised everyone by winning four races from 10 starts in 1973, setting a six-furlong track record at the Pleasanton fair, and running second in a Bay Meadows stakes before her retirement and subsequent date with destiny. The race record of her son Spectacular Bid is well known: 26 wins from 30 starts; champion three straight years; Horse of the Year in 1980. His lasting influence on the breed? Although he got 44 stakes winners, he is better known as a broodmare sire, his 268 daughters at this writing having produced 657 winners (including 79 stakes winners) with earnings of more than $57 million. On the year-end broodmare sires list of 2003, the famous champion whose mother of modest origin competed on the county fair circuit, outranked Secretariat, Storm Cat, Wild Again, Alydar, and Riverman, among numerous others of royal blood.MORTON CATHRO is a retired newspaperman who lives within a 35-minute drive of the Pleasanton fairgrounds.