State racing officials are considering a plan that could force the Sonoma County Fair to move its 2014 dates or else give up a week of horse races, a blow that could exceed $150,000 for the cash-strapped event.
California Horse Racing Board member Steve Beneto is pushing a plan that would add a week of horse racing for the California State Fair in July, but that would conflict with the scheduled first week of the Sonoma fair. Under his proposal, therefore, Sonoma's racing days would be shifted a week later than normally, starting July 31 and ending Aug. 17.
The Sonoma County Fair is set to run July 24 through Aug. 10 and had expected to have its racing days coincide with those dates.
Sonoma County Fair Manager Tawny Tesconi said she will vigorously fight the proposal when it comes before the board on Oct. 24. She said the state fair should certainly get whatever support it needs to be the best fair in the state "but I don't think that should be done on the back of another fair."
The Sonoma County Fair had locked in its dates more than a year in advance, Tesconi said. It would be effectively impossible to move those dates at this point.
Beneto did not unveil his surprise proposal until the racing board's Sept. 19 meeting, four months after Tesconi submitted a request for the earlier dates. He is insisting on his plan even after meeting with various reluctant fair and horse industry representatives from around the state on Oct. 1.
Beneto, a former state fair board member, did not return a call to explain his proposal this week, but during the board's September meeting, he said that Gov. Jerry Brown had said he wanted to see three full weeks of racing at the state fair, necessitating the change in dates for Sonoma. The governor's office did not respond to a call for comment.
It's not clear how much support Beneto's proposal will have on the seven-member panel, but member Jesse Choper sat in on the Oct. 1 meeting and concurred with Beneto's recommendation afterward, although he does not plan to attend the Oct. 24 board meeting.
He said this week that the recommendation is part of a broader effort to guarantee that the three biggest Northern California horse events in the summer — the Sonoma County Fair, the state fair and the Alameda County Fair at Pleasanton — each get three weeks to host horse racing without competition from other tracks. That balance is becoming ever more difficult to strike as schools move opening dates earlier in August, limiting the time when families can attend fairs and other summertime events.
"It's complicated and I don't know that anybody will be 100 percent happy with the solution," he said.
Wagering on horse racing is a $2.9 billion industry in California. The vast majority of that is in the form of off-track betting. The state fairs held in facilities with racetracks, such as the one in Santa Rosa, use their state-allocated race days for a combination of live races and telecasts of races held elsewhere.
The proceeds from wagering are split largely between the horse owners, jockeys, and the venues, making them a major source of revenue for the seven "racing fairs" around the state.