State officials Thursday made good on their promise to allow the Sonoma County Fair to run horse racing through all three weeks of the 2014 fair, but the decision came with a warning that the fair may not be so fortunate in 2015.
After months of threats to shift Sonoma County's racing schedule later into August to award a prime July week to the state fair, the California State Horse Racing Board formally agreed to give Sonoma County the dates it wanted, July 24 through Aug. 10, coinciding with the dates of the fair.
Fair Manager Tawny Tesconi had argued that it was too late to shift the dates of the fair and that running racing the week after the fair closed would cost up to $150,000 in expected revenue since crowds would be much thinner. She raised the possibility that it might not even be worth running races during that later week.
Although the board members bowed to her argument for 2014, they made clear they are likely to force Sonoma County into a later schedule in 2015. Although the board did not set specific dates for 2015, commissioners voted unanimously to promise the state fair that it would be guaranteed three full weeks of racing that year, up from the two weeks it has had in recent years. That will set up a new conflict between the state fair and the Sonoma County Fair, which typically overlap a week in late July.
Rick Pickering, CEO of Cal Expo, which hosts the state fair, argued that favoring Sonoma County over the state fair makes no sense. The final week of the state fair, which coincides with the traditional first week of the Sonoma County Fair, draws about 340,000 participants.
"Attendance at that last week exceeded the entire three weeks of attendance at the Sonoma County Fair," he told the board Thursday.
The Sonoma County Fair drew about 314,000 visitors in 2013.
Tesconi and representatives of horse owners and trainers, however, objected to favoring the state fair's schedule, saying that that the fairground in Santa Rosa is preferable to the track in Sacramento. The climate is more favorable in the summer and the facilities are better, offering both dirt and turf tracks, they say.
If the board ends up pushing the Sonoma County dates later in 2015, "you're going to hurt the horsemen, hurt the purses, hit the fair," Tesconi said.
The board is expected to discuss the specific dates for 2015 at its meeting in January, though members showed little inclination this week to back down from the promise to give the state fair the dates it wants.
The idea of shifting fair dates came as an unpleasant shock to Tesconi in September when Horse Racing Board member Steve Beneto, a former Cal Expo board member, proposed giving the state fair an extra week in 2014. Beneto insisted he wasn't trying to hurt the Sonoma County Fair, saying he was simply trying to give both fairs three full weeks of lucrative racing time, more than either has enjoyed historically.
Beneto had suggested that Sonoma County push its 2014 fair back a week to accommodate his proposal, but Tesconi said such a change was impossible on such short notice. Moreover, she said, pushing the fair into the third week in August begins to conflict with the start of the academic year for several large school districts, meaning that the fair might lose attendance and would certainly lose the services of teachers on summer break, who make up a portion of the seasonal workers at the fair.