Could Pleasanton Replace Bay Meadows?

Northern California's Alameda County Fair wants to install a $3 million turf course at its Pleasanton racing facility later this year. But the fair's chief executive officer wants to see it used for more than an annual 11-day summer meet.

Rick Pickering, the fair's CEO, says his facility is capable of playing a much larger role. The fair site already includes a full one-mile dirt oval, a 6,600-seat grandstand and training stalls for 700 horses.

With Bay Meadow's days numbered – development plans will likely bring that track to a close by the end of 2004 – Pickering says it is time Pleasanton gets consideration as a year-round racing facility.

"We want to hear from the industry whether they would support the idea," Pickering said. "Is this something they feel we need? If we get the feeling that industry support isn't there, it doesn't make sense for us to go to the expense of a turf course."

The fair's board of directors has approved plans for the new grass course, but it would still require the Alameda County Board of Supervisors' okay.

Pickering notes that Pleasanton, which is located southeast of Oakland across the San Francisco Bay from San Mateo's Bay Meadows, has been running horse races since Spanish Don Augustin Bernal built the track in 1858. The fair and track operate as part of a non-profit organization, the Alameda County Agricultural Assoc., and therefore has no incurred debt like that of a private operation, has no stockholders to pay and receives no tax support, he adds.

"We're here, we've always been here and we're always going to be here," he said. The fair currently runs from late June through the July 4 weekend and has a large simulcast facility, handling $76 million in 2002.

Pleasanton has training year-round and the 300 horses and 45 trainers based there account for about 12 percent of the starters on the main Northern California circuit, Pickering said.

Year-round racing at Pleasanton would bring the fair into direct competition in Northern California with Magna Entertainment Corp., which operates both of the region's major tracks – Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields, located in Albany.

Magna's lease to continue racing at Bay Meadows expires at the end of the year, but it expects to be able to renew through 2004. Property owner Bay Meadows Land Co. recently unveiled plans publicly for an 83.5-acre residential and business development on the site and anticipates completing the planning process by then.

Magna is working with the city of Dixon, 20 miles west of Sacramento and 70 miles east of Bay Meadows, on plans to build a new state-of-the-art track and entertainment complex. Dixon Downs was to be formerly presented to the city late last year, but was slowed by requests for commercial additions to the original design. The company has estimated it could have the track ready within two years of approval.

"We can't wait to see what happens with Dixon," Pickering said. "The San Francisco Bay Area is the hotbed for racing in Northern California.

"We believe the population is here, the market is here and that this a better place to race year-round than Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Bakersfield or Stockton would be."

Because of residential community concerns, Pickering said Pleasanton wouldn't be able to handle 80-day meets.

"But we could certainly do 30 days, have it go somewhere else for a period of time and come back to run for 30 days again," he said.

Fairs dominate the Northern California racing scene during the summer. Trainers traditionally ship their turf runners to Southern California or go out of state. With one grass course already approved at Sonoma County Fair's Santa Rosa track and a second proposed at Pleasanton, fair officials hope that will change.