Shift in horse racing schedule could impact Sonoma County Fair

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.

Benito is billing his proposal as a bonus for all three tracks, giving each a solid three weeks of racing, more than any of them had this year. But Tesconi said the final week of racing under his plan, from Aug. 11-17, would be uneconomical and the fair probably would not bother to race on any of those days. That would sacrifice $150,000 and $200,000 in revenue the fair had been counting on.

She said the fair tried running a week of racing outside of the normal fair dates in 2010 and revenue was down by 50 percent, making it uneconomical to keep the racetrack running without the other fair activities to buoy attendance.

Losing that third week of race revenue would be a devastating blow for the fair, which is on shaky financial ground. After years of losing money, the fair is looking at breaking even in the current fiscal year, but only by $172 out of an $8.7 million budget. Things are already looking grim for next year: the recent hike in the state minimum wage will cost the fair an estimated $85,000 in 2014 and county supervisors are leaning on the fair board to restore overtime pay for 600 temporary fair workers, which was cut in 2013 as a cost savings measure.

Restoring that overtime pay will cost at least $29,000, Tesconi said.

The Sonoma County Fair is not without friends going into the fight over the racing days. Tesconi said she has asked local legislators to impress on the governor the dire consequences of forcing the fair to lose racing days.

The fair also has the support of key elements of the horse racing industry, which say the Santa Rosa track is the best in Northern California, and in some ways the best in the whole state.

The California Thoroughbred Trainers plans to argue against Beneto's proposal, said Charlie Dougherty, deputy director of the organization. Sonoma County's race course is the only one that offers a turf-covered track, he said, and many owners and trainers like to run their horses on the turf rather than bare dirt.

The facility is also convenient and well run, he said, meaning that if it comes to a conflict between the state fair and the Sonoma County Fair, horsemen would prefer to see the contested days run in Santa Rosa.

The Sonoma County fair "shouldn't have anything taken from them," he said. "They should be rewarded for standing up and providing the turf course."

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)




The story above has been altered to reflect the following correction.

CORRECTION: Added October 31, 2013


An article published on October 10, 2013, misstated how many times California Horse Racing Board member Steve Beneto invoked Gov. Jerry Brown in a September discussion of Northern California racing dates. Only once did Beneto assert that the governor supported his proposal to shift racing days to benefit the state fair. The other mention of the governor during the meeting was by board Chairman David Israel. Beneto said this week that he was relying on Israel's statement, which came first, rather than on direct discussions with the governor.