The Sonoma County Fair will get the horse racing schedule it wanted after all, at least in 2014.
After months of heated discussion about pushing the fair's racing dates later into next summer to accommodate extra racing at the California State Fair, the state's Horse Racing Board is now willing to give the Sonoma County Fair the earlier dates it had requested, Fair Director Tawny Tesconi said Tuesday after meeting with board members and racing industry representatives.
The fair has set its 2014 dates for July 24 through Aug. 10. In the spring, Tesconi asked the board to set its horse racing schedule to coincide.
In a surprise move in September, however, board member Steve Beneto, a former board member of Cal Expo, which hosts the state fair, proposed pushing Sonoma's racing days later by a week so the state fair could have three full weeks of racing. Previously it had run just two weeks.
Sonoma fair officials reacted with disbelief, saying it was too late to reschedule the fair. They estimated losing one week of racing during the fair would cost about $150,000 that the cash-strapped fair was counting on for next year. Local politicians, including all the state lawmakers representing the county, protested the proposed change.
That pressure appears to have forced Beneto to back down, though he said he would revive his proposal for the 2015 racing and fair season.
"Everybody was saying they don't have time to adjust to the change and wanted us to push it back a year and we agreed to do that," he said after Tuesday's closed-door meeting with Tesconi and industry members, who had generally backed Sonoma County's request for the earlier dates.
The formal decision will be made by the full racing board at a public meeting Dec. 12.
Tesconi expressed relief at the break in the dispute, which led to tense and occasionally acrimonious discussions at the board's September and October meetings. The board had been scheduled to discuss the matter again at a meeting last week, but Chairman David Israel pulled it from the agenda at the last minute.
Although the 2014 schedule is now secure, the prospect of changing the dates in 2015 is still a problem, Tesconi said, since later dates would overlap with the opening of school. By ending the fair on or about Aug. 10, she said, the fair can count on teachers who are on summer break as temporary workers.
While school students do not generally return to class until the third week in August in the county's largest districts, teachers and staff begin to return to work in the second week, meaning the fair would lose them as potential temporary workers.
Tesconi said she would argue against moving the dates later in the summer in 2015, but at least the delay in Beneto's proposal gives her time to study the idea and perhaps coordinate with area school districts to synchronize schedules.
Beneto repeated Tuesday his insistence that his proposal is a better deal for Sonoma County than it had gotten before. Under his plan, all three of the major Northern California fairs with associated race tracks — Alameda County, Sonoma County and the state fair — would get three full weeks of racing in 2015, more than they have enjoyed in previous years.