California Fair Circuit Enjoying Solid Summer

Thanks to an influx of approximately $9.3 million in account deposit wagering and some Seabiscuit magic, the California summer fair circuit has enjoyed a solid season thus far.

"We're having a good summer and the thing that pleases us most is that we're bucking the trend," said Christopher Korby, executive director for the California Authority of Racing Fairs. "Everyone else in the state has been down."

The Northern California fairs wrap up with the 12-day State Fair meet at Sacramento's Cal Expo Aug. 20 through Labor Day, Sept. 1. The Los Angeles County Fair follows the Del Mar meet next month for 17 days (Sept. 12-28) and the Big Fresno Fair in Central California runs Oct. 1-13.

Meet totals have been mostly encouraging, with the 10-day San Joaquin County Fair reporting record all-source handle of $16.95 million. The 11-day Alameda County Fair recorded its second-highest handle total of $26.29 million in spite of a 10% decline in on-track business due to an extraordinary heat wave in its opening week. The story was the much the same for the 11-day Solano County Fair, which experienced a 12% bump in all-source handle over 2002, to just over $25 million.

The 12-day Sonoma County Fair was off 4%, according to CARF, settling at $29.45 million.

The all-source totals do not include account deposit wagering figures, which were substantial at all four fairs -- San Joaquin ($2.5 million), Alameda ($2.2 million), Solano ($2.1 million) and Sonoma ($2.5 million).

While on-track attendance, which is measured imprecisely by a formula based on programs sold, was flat, field size improved from an average of about 7.6 horses to about 8.3 horses per race overall.

Korby believes that a three-year effort to attract out-of-state horsemen to the fairs is beginning to pay off. In addition, he said the fairs are paying more attention to maintenance and safety issues and taking better care of track surfaces.

"It's been heartening to see that we're turning that around," he said. "That's been a real plus for us."

Cal Expo recently reported that it has more stall applications than it has stable room available at its 900-space backstretch facility.

Korby said that CARF's decision to award non-exclusive contracts to the state's three ADW providers, has helped handle numbers. He said has handled the most home betting action this summer, at about 51%, followed by TVG (35%) and Xpressbet (15%).

And there is the Seabiscuit factor. All of the fairs ran special promotions surrounding the release of the film, Korby said.

"We experienced it here, certainly over the weekend when the horse from the film made an appearance," said Kim Myrman, general manager of the Solano County Fair. "It created tremendous excitement and media interest, with a momentum that gave us the strongest weekend attendance figures in recent memory."

Partial figures for two in-progress racing fairs -- the San Mateo County at Bay Meadows and the Humboldt County at Ferndale, which wrapped up Aug. 17 -- showed that San Mateo is 18% ahead of its 2002 pace, but that Ferndale, the smallest meet on the circuit, is off 21%. On most days, the racing office was carding just two or three Thoroughbred races as part of abbreviated programs.

Ferndale officials did not return phone calls, but Korby speculated that the remote location of the meet in the extreme northwest part of the state coupled with a higher purse structure at Sacramento may have convinced Thoroughbred horsemen to wait for the State Fair.

"You can fill in the programs with mixed breed races and others, but you need the Thoroughbreds to be successful," Korby said. "We'll have to take a look at the situation and see how we can improve things."