In 1905, the Santa Rosa City Council temporarily suspended the midnight closing law for all saloons. For four days, the bars were open all night. All because "the horsemen" were in town.
This historical gem, uncovered by researcher Dee Blackman, is proof positive that 100 years ago, Santa Rosa, with its fast race track and reputation for horse breeding, was a destination for buyers, trainers and bettors from all over California. Racing meets that drew people by the trainload were regular events. Is it possible this could happen again?
For those who labor in the pastures of history, the very idea can cause ghost horses to ride across our landscape. And it's certainly a bit of history to make tavern owners dream of turning back the clock. That's no longer a local option. But the prospect of a renewed interest in horse racing, based on the completion of the fancy new turf track at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, is enough to create a gleeful optimism among innkeepers and restaurant and bar owners around Sonoma County.
The addition of a grass track should attract faster horses, and the faster the horses, the higher the stakes, the fatter the bettors' wallets, the better it is for business.
A return to those glory years, when the county was a horseplayer's heaven, may have been what Jack DeMeo, a former fair director and racing chairman, had in mind.
DeMeo, a lawyer, has a personal history with the Santa Rosa track. He insists that his lifelong love of horses and horse racing began when he was 5 or 6 years old and his mother took him to a livery stable at the fairgrounds, where he was allowed to gallop on the old track. He and his wife, Judy, own some 15 thoroughbreds, including several that race on the fair circuit.
It was DeMeo who called a meeting a dozen years ago to talk about building a grass track here. At that meeting at the Occidental restaurant of another horse owner, Joe Negri, Jack recalls that representatives from Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields snickered at the notion that Sonoma County could pull off such an extravagant plan.
You'll have to excuse DeMeo, therefore, if he now mutters "I told you so." The new $3 million turf track, which will be dedicated on the first Saturday of this year's county fair with a "toast" from 5,000 souvenir champagne glasses filled with cider, could make Santa Rosa, once again, a preferred destination for horse breeders and horse players.
It is only the third turf track in Northern California - Bay Meadows and Golden Gate Fields being the other two. As such, it promises to not only entice more and faster thoroughbreds to race at our fair, but to attract other race meets. If it comes off as planned, it will indeed be a return to past glories.
EVER SINCE the 1850s, when Julio Carrillo, generally regarded as the founder of Santa Rosa, bet building lots in his new town that his fast mares could beat all comers, horses have been a big deal.
Before this area became Wine Country - even before it was Hop, Prune, Chicken or Gravenstein Country - it was Horse Country.
Turn back 120 years, to the 1880s, and you'll find that the Agricultural Park Association (a property that is now the county fairgrounds) boasted of "the fastest track on the Pacific Coast" and Santa Rosa was already one of the important racing towns in the state. Ladies were admitted to the covered grandstand that could seat 500 race fans. All the facilities were considered top drawer.